My family and I have been grieving the loss of a loved one, someone gone too soon. Someone who took care of their health and still died of a heart attack. Someone who influenced my teens and twenties, as a part brother, part father figure, part mentor, and part reality checker. Someone who left behind a wife and a (currently) four year old daughter.
Navigating grief this close to home is new to me and our immediate family. As we struggle to navigate these murky waters, his wife, my sister in law, has been sharing resources to help someone who is grieving. (Even through the worst event of her life, she’s taking the time to help others.) Surprisingly a lot of what she has shared is also applicable to the conversations I’ve had around my mental health for the last few years. (I speak publicly about my diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder.)
One of the most important things she talks about is how people rush to FIX everything. Fix the problem, fix the mood, fix the issue, without realising that a fix is impossible, or in progress, or will take time, or not what’s needed right now.
So what can you do instead? Hold space — Allow someone to be and feel and talk about and express what they’re going through without trying to solve the problem.
Below is a wonderful example that my sister in law shared on her Instagram. I’m re-sharing this with her permission and with minor edits only for clarity.
A friend (or your child) comes to you. They sit beside you. They trust you enough to talk about how they are doing. They take out a black box. They put it down in the space between the two of you and start to talk about it. They tell you that it’s a heavy box. That it’s a big box. They start to talk a little bit about what’s in the box.
You look at the box and feel really uncomfortable. You pity your friend for having to carry it. And because of years of conditioning, here’s how you react:
Scenario 1: You tell them that it doesn’t really look that big, maybe it’s not as heavy as they think it is and that they are really making a big deal out of it. You feel like you’ve helped them. You feel better.
They feel dismissed. Their feelings have been invalidated. They probably even blame themselves for actually feeling like the box is big and heavy. They move the box out of sight
They probably don’t show you the box ever again.
Scenario 2: You see the box. You immediately take out the toolkit that you use to deal with such situations. Your tools probably look like this: a bunch of pretty bows, a list of ‘should’s, probably a talk about your own box.
You start throwing the ‘should’s at your friend. You take the bows and put them on the box and start to tell them how pretty it now looks. You tell them about how you once had a box and what you did about it. You tell them to cut down the size of the box, to throw some stuff out because it makes no sense (to you).
You feel better. You feel like you’ve helped. The box looks smaller and prettier to you and you feel a little less uncomfortable about sitting beside it.
Your friend feels worse about the fact that they can’t see the bows, they can’t throw some of the stuff out. They feel like losers for not being able to get rid of the box the way you said you did with yours.
Here’s how you can try holding space:
Your friend takes out the box and puts it in the space between the two of you. It makes you uncomfortable. But you take a deep breath. You ask them to talk about it. You ask how big the box is and how heavy it feels. You ask to see the contents. You ask about how it feels to carry the box around. You ask how you can help
They talk about it. You nod along. You don’t interrupt with any tools from your toolkit. As they talk about it, they feel less lonely. They feel validated. They probably gain some strength to carry the box better. Maybe, just maybe, their box gets a little lighter.
They feel closer to you. Grateful that you didn’t try to throw away or ignore their box. They will most probably keep showing you the box until they need to. You become their safe space.
How it can help us:
The next time we feel like we have our own box, we may feel less uncomfortable about it. We may take it out and put it beside us. We may be able to sit with it. Try to look at it and not want to throw it away, not feel guilty about having it, feel a little less terrible about having to carry it.
We probably don’t rush to take out our own toolkit. We try to talk ourselves through the contents of the box. Maybe, we even feel safe enough to show someone our box. Because we know that a lot of us have our own boxes to carry.
Holding space is definitely an important life skill and emotional skill to learn.
- It helps build empathy.
- It helps us to structure our support in a way that doesn’t make everything about us. When we listen to someone without offering advice, examples from our life and without judging, we truly make it about the other person.
- It helps validate the other person’s experience.
It takes a lot of unlearning and relearning to hold space because we have been conditioned to do the complete opposite. In my experience, it starts from small things.
When little kids fall or hurt themselves, we immediately say it’s okay nothing happened. (At least that was the response I saw and heard around me.) There, right there, we are invalidating the child’s reality. Because it is hurting them. Right there we are telling them that it’s not okay for them to express their pain and they need to be strong.
I try to make a conscious effort to rephrase and say ‘I know it hurts’ I’m here. And hopefully, my child will learn by example. If I can show her by example that holding space needs to be our default way of functioning, validating the other person’s feelings needs to be our default way of functioning and that not everything is about her.
If I can help her do this, I think I will leave her with an important skill. And, hopefully, my husband will be proud of me if I can do that. Не, in his wisdom beyond his years, knew this. And he even tried to teach me this.
But it took his death for me to understand it.
I hope this helps you pause the next time you get a call from someone who needs support. I hope that you find a way to do this for yourself as well. To sit with a feeling instead of rushing to fix it. Acknowledging an emotion is the first step to rectifying it, as I’ve learned in therapy.
If you feel like your friends and family are unable to support you please talk to a therapist. There is no minimum requirement of distress you need to hit before you seek help. Talk to a psychologist, a counsellor, or a psychiatrist. They’ll refer you to a specialist if needed. They are trained professionals and will give you a non judgmental safe space to open up. They will give you tools to navigate your emotions and the curve balls that life is bound to throw at you.
If you’re in India you can find a therapist on practo.com or lybrate.com.
Thanks for taking the time to read something I wrote/compiled/transcribed. I don’t put any of the content I post behind a paywall because I feel like it should be accessible to anyone who needs it. That being said, putting together content takes time, effort, and thought. I’m a freelancer without a salary and I live off the gig economy and the contribution of patrons. If you would like to contribute to my work (you can give as little as $2 or 150 rupees a month) please click here: https://www.patreon.com/urvashi