Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.
“The most familiar models of who we are—doctor and patient, ‘helper’ and ‘helped’—often turn out to be major obstacles to the expression of our caring instincts; they limit the full measure of what we have to offer one another… True compassion arises out of unity.”
- Ram Dass
I truly believe that the largest impediment to providing a compassionate support to a grieving person is the professional distinction we often make between “us” and “them.” Invested in models of separateness, we end up creating distance in the helping relationship. The more you see yourself as having superior knowledge of someone else’s grief experience, the more need there is for the griever to play the passive role of being helped.
In my ministry in grief care, I’ve discovered that true healing lies within the mourner, not the “expert counselor.” True compassion evolves when you, the companion, see yourself as a fellow traveler, not as an expert in the mourner’s journey. The more you can walk alongside and learn from the mourner, the more you will experience the true grace of an equal relationship of unity.
Another way to think of yourself is as a holder of mirrors. You as grief companion never really “heal” anyone. Instead, you help people heal themselves by holding up mirrors. As they peer into the mirrors, mourners may experience a shift, a transformation of experience anchored in the heart and the soul.
This tenet describes those qualities that I have discovered allow the companion to walk alongside the grieving person. Artful companions are those who keep their hearts open wide and always continue to learn from the true expert—the mourner. If by some chance, your heart has closed off, perhaps the discussion that follows will help you soften and re-open your heart.
This tenet begs the question, “How can we establish a relationship with the mourner that provides a safe environment wherein she feels free to authentically express grief without fear of judgment, isolation or abandonment?” What follows is a brief introduction to the qualities that allow you to walk alongside the mourner.
This important quality relates to a nonpossessive caring for and affirmation of the mourner as a separate person capable of healing from the inside out. Respect involves a receptive attitude of having the mourner teach you about her experience of grief. The opposite of this respectful companioning partnership would be the caregiver who presumptuously believes that her superior knowledge of grief qualifies her to project what is best for the mourner to think, feel, and do.
Sensitivity and Warmth
Sensitivity and warmth in the companion are demonstrated through a sense of personal closeness to the mourner as opposed to professional distance. Distancing ourselves from their own or another’s pain and acting like they are experts are ways some caregivers get into trouble. Some counselors are even trained to stay professionally distant and come across as cold and impersonal. There is such truth in the saying, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” Above all, sensitivity and warmth imply patience and the capacity to respond in a nonjudgmental way to the needs of the mourner.
The companion must be truly herself—non-phony and non-defensive. Your words and actions should match your inner feelings. Genuineness results in interpersonal richness. When the mourner senses you are genuine, she can authentically express what is on her heart.
Trust is about consistency and safety. Grieving people often naturally feel a lack of trust in the world because of the death of someone loved. They sometimes wonder if they should risk trusting or loving again. As a companion, you have an obligation to help the mourner feel consistently safe with you. When trust happens between two people, there is a noticeable exchange of energy. And conversely, when trust is lacking or absent, no energy is exchanged and nothing happens.
This quality has to do with being present to the mourner in the here and now. It goes beyond the content of what is being said to the process of what is happening from moment to moment. The high-functioning companion has the gift of high levels of immediacy. The mourner’s needs are right there in the present moment and immediacy allows you to be empathetically responsive to those needs. The present moment is where the needs of the soul reside—and grief work is anchored in soul work.
This connotes a willingness to learn from one’s own mistakes as well as an appreciation of one’s limitations and strengths. Humility also means continually being aware of how your own experiences with loss are impacting your presence to the mourner. Helpers who are humble remember to ask questions of themselves such as, “How am I being impacted by sharing in the mourner’s experience with grief?”; “Does the mourner’s experience with loss remind me of some of my own losses?”; “Where can I share the feelings that supporting this mourner stimulates in me?” Humility means you are not the expert but are open to learning what each new companioning relationship has to teach you about being helpful at this moment in time. And humility interfaces with developing a service ethic—genuinely wanting to care for others, while at the same time realizing you are not “in charge.” Instead, you submit yourself to the tenets of companioning (as opposed to treating) and open your soul to the mysterious journey called grief.
To be patient with the mourner is to let him mourn in his own way and time at a pace he is comfortable with. Some of the deepest communication you may have with a grieving person comes during times of silence and solitude. Being patient is a means of building trust and enhancing the mourner’s awareness that you are there to bear witness and learn from his unique experiences. Patience is a very quiet, unassuming quality—the capacity to wait for what is unseen and unspoken to be gradually made manifest. Patience also denotes a quietness of spirit, a deep inner knowing that you will stay present and stand at the mourner’s side.
I believe it is impossible to be a true companion without this quality, for it is in having hope that you communicate your belief that the mourner can and will heal, or “become whole again.”
Hope is an expectation of a good that is yet to be. It is an expression of the present alive with a sense of the possible. You create hope in the mourner by having hope in your heart and providing acceptance, recognition, affirmation and gratitude in the context of your helping relationship. Hope rallies energies and activates the courage to commitment of mourning.
Even in the midst of grief, moments of humor spontaneously occur. How much lighter we feel when we laugh in the midst of our pain. Too much sitting in seriousness violates the laws of the universe.
To have “heart’ as you companion people in grief is to be true to your own feelings, humanness and vulnerabilities. When you work from a place of heart, you function as a whole. When your analytical, thinking self is in charge, you may be just in your head. Yet, the centerpiece of the integration of grief is not the mind, but the heart. Being a companion naturally occurs when you relax into yourself and bring compassion to all of your helping efforts.
This allows you to fulfill not only your personal passion to help those in grief, but also your highest purpose that will be part of your contribution to helping all people mourn well so they can go on to live well and love well. When you minister from the heart, you are in a state of deep connection with the divine, with yourself and with other human beings. You do not minister alone, but in the companionship of other companions.
Once you have explored the ten qualities outlined above, considering your strengths and weaknesses, it is probably best to forget all this and return to this tenet only when you feel that one or more of these qualities is missing in your helping relationships. When you feel yourself struggling in a companioning relationship, you may find that it is because you have temporarily lost touch with one or more of these qualities.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, available at bookstores and at Dr. Wolfelt’s website, www.centerforloss.com. Dr. Wolfelt is an internationally noted author, teacher and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is an educational consultant to funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, schools and a variety of community agencies across North America. If you’ve missed the previous Companioning Tenets, CLICK HERETenetsofCompanioning_24x36
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