Have you ever felt the need to share a significant experience with someone, hoping the person you chose to share it with would not only hear you but understand what you were trying to express? Hoping they will “get” the powerful feelings and thoughts you’re trying to convey? And, have you ever heard a response that goes something like this, “I know exactly what you mean. The same thing happened to me…” and they go on to tell you an experience they had in great detail and in great length which clearly indicates they may have heard you but they don’t understand – they don’t get it? Then, because you really, really want them to get it, you try again, perhaps in a different way, only to receive either a blank stare, another “I know exactly what you mean” story, a condescending gaze or a cliché response, or they leave (either literally or metaphorically). Shortly, you do the same – you leave (literally or metaphorically).
Each of us has an intense natural need to be fully heard and to be fully understood (as much as possible). We need to know others truly sense and can acknowledge the significance of the life experience we are choosing to share. This marking of significance is important for all of us, BUT it is absolutely crucial when in the midst of grieving the death of someone in our lives. Doug Manning, author and speaker, points out that “the most important word in grieving is ‘significance.’” He articulates that the griever needs to establish significance on at least three levels:
1) The Significance of our Loss – we want people to recognize what just happened to us, just how big this loss is on so many different levels in our lives (all the other losses we’re experiencing because of this loss).
2) The Significance of the Person – we want people to know the value of the person who died, we want to show just how important this person is and how great their loss is and will be.
3) The Social Significance – we want to know this person was important in other people’s lives, we want to hear stories from others, and, most importantly, we want to know this person will not be forgotten (one of our greatest fears).
As grievers we need to find ‘safe people’ who will help mark the significance of what just happened to us. Safe people know the depth of our pain because they’ve known that kind of pain themselves. Safe people are those who know our confusion, fear and vulnerability because they’ve experienced worlds of their own being turned upside down and inside out. We need safe people who will listen to our stories over and over without rolling their eyes, comparing, or interrupting us because they heard it before, or sit in judgement of us (judgement ranging from how “strong” we are to, “Don’t you think it’s time to get over it?”). Those who are safe people not only respect our boundaries but encourage us to have them, and it’s clear they honor their own set of boundaries. Safe people will not further load our already burdened shoulders with ‘shoulds’ and expectations and free advice. Safe people are those who will stand alongside of us in the fog, in the darkness, in the wilderness, who may offer a direction or two on our way, but who will ultimately allow us to make this journey on our own, knowing we are the only ones who can find our way to places of light.
Where might we find safe people? Unfortunately, not always in those persons we expected (which can also be a great loss). Our radar is keenly attune to those who are not safe and we need to trust our intuition – our radar. Discovering our safe people can be surprising and sometimes they can become close friends. Many bereaved have found their safe people by taking the risk to participate in a support group or in a grief seminar or program. Others have found their safe people by visiting a counselor or a spiritual guide. Still others connect with their safe people by reaching out to coworkers, fellow church goers, sports enthusiasts who have experienced the death of a loved one in their lives. No matter where we find our safe people, what’s imperative for us as grievers is that we persist in finding them. We persist in finding those who can provide for us real presence – who will remain – who won’t be frightened away by our need to establish significance – who can embrace our tears and us if we need it. Simply, safe people are those who “get it” and they are incredibly valuable people to have on our journey of grief.