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She was just 15 when she died

AUTHOR: Dr Susan Palmer

I had met her a few months earlier. She had just been told by her oncologist that she had only weeks to live. Her doctors thought that talking to a psychologist might help.

When we met, she was equal parts angry, heartbroken and terrified. She would lash out at those around her. Suddenly drop to the floor weeping. Sit in total silence for entire sessions with me.

I was a young psychologist at the time. Not many years out of my training. And I felt totally out of my depth as I struggled to support her through her grief.

After one particularly difficult session, I headed straight to the office of my mentor. She was a social worker with over 35 years’ experience working with cancer patients. She had sat with countless patients as they came to terms with their own mortality and had been with many as they took their final breath. I was looking for her guidance. I was desperate to learn from her wisdom. I wanted her to tell me how I could do better. How I could be a better psychologist. How I could ‘help’ this young girl as she fought to make sense of her own mortality.

She listened to me in the quiet and patient manner that she has and then said…

“You are trying to fix this. She already has enough people around her trying to fix this. Be the person that can just sit with her and handle all of her emotions. Be the person that will not change the topic or pretend her pain isn’t real. Be the person that will walk alongside her; who will follow her lead. Be the person that can feel her pain – but doesn’t walk away from it. You cannot fix this. But you can make sure she does not go through this alone”.

This was THE single most powerful learning experience of my career.

I am sharing this because I know many of you have felt the same way I did when sitting so close to someone who is grieving.

You have felt the need to make it better. You have felt inadequate or that you were not ‘doing it right’. You have felt certain that others would know how to handle grief better than you.

But what if that is how we all feel when faced with grief and loss.

What if feeling ‘out of our depth’ is a totally normal response to witnessing another person’s unimaginable pain.

What if, next time someone you know is grieving, you do not assume that others know how to deal with this better than you.

What if you just sat with them, feeling uncomfortable, knowing they are in terrible pain and you can not fix it…

Does it help to know that sitting in silence may be the best thing you can do?

Are you more likely to be there for someone if you know that it is ok that you can not fix it… because nobody else can either?

We would love to hear what you think about this post and what has helped you during loss or grief…

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