Holding space for someone in grief is an act of love. When a grieving person knows they can let their guard down and face their pain, that opportunity can make a world of difference. But holding space is a responsibility that takes mental and emotional energy.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Does It Mean to Hold Space for Someone Who’s Grieving?
- How to Hold Space for a Grieving Loved One
- What Happens If You Can’t Hold Space for a Grieving Loved One?
It’s not just making small talk at a funeral or memorial service. Your loved one needs to lean on you because they feel powerless and overwhelmed by their loss. Holding space can be a beautiful way to extend your love for another person.
Here we’ll explore what it means to hold space for someone going through grief, how to do it, and what may happen if you can’t do it for someone.
What Does It Mean to Hold Space for Someone Who’s Grieving?
Holding space for someone in grief means to be fully present for them when they need you. That can be harder than it sounds, and it’s more than just sitting and listening. You need to have the capacity to observe, offer support, and put your needs aside for a while.
It doesn't mean you have to manage everything perfectly or appear strong and stoic. It means you are caring for them and remaining fully available to handle what happens, even if it’s uncomfortable and ugly. It’s a compassionate and unselfish act that can be challenging at times, even when you want to be there for someone you care about.
How to Hold Space for a Grieving Loved One
The key to holding space for someone is staying in the present moment. As you remain available for your loved one, they can feel safe to experience their grief however it unfolds. These tips can help you understand how to give the support they need.
Reach out to them, even if you aren’t sure what to do or say
Taking the first step can feel awkward, especially because you may instinctively want to avoid hurting your loved one more. It can seem like an invitation to talk may make a person feel worse, but avoiding them is the real problem. People do want space when they’re grieving. But if you disappear from their life for several weeks or months, your loved one may feel rejected, isolated, or like their grief doesn't matter.
Grief gets better over time when you face it. It’s good to take breaks and have other distractions to keep you occupied. But emotions will find a way to the surface, and sharing them with someone you trust is a helpful way to deal with them. That’s where you come in. Some day, your loved one may be ready to take you up on your offer to talk. And even if they know the conversation may get uncomfortable, getting their emotions off their chest can be a relief.
Stay grounded with deep breathing
Holding space for someone takes a certain capacity to cope with your own emotional reactions. Watching your loved one grieve and go through a range of painful feelings can weigh on you, and that’s why holding space is such a commitment. It’s normal to have reactions and feelings while you support your loved one, but you’ll need to stay present and ready for them anyway.
Deep breathing can help you ride the swells of emotion you may experience while holding space. If you feel yourself getting swept away or focused on yourself too much, some deep breaths can bring you back to the current moment. You can continue being compassionate while addressing your emotions. Concentrating on your breath may also help you avoid nervous chatter when it gets quiet. You’ll give yourself something to do and allow them the quiet space they need.
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Acknowledge what they’re experiencing right now
Tell your loved one that it’s OK for them to share their emotions with you openly. You don’t have to be their hero or try to protect them from pain. They may not be ready to share when you first offer your support. But when they accept your invitation, they’ll know they can trust you with anything that happens.
Don’t be pushy about getting them to talk, but it’s OK to be straightforward about their situation. Use words like death, dying, divorce, miscarriage, or whatever defines the loss. Saying the name of the individual or thing that was lost keeps it real, even if it is painful. This is a time for honesty and acceptance, and stating reality like this lets your loved one know you’re ready to talk and listen.
Make your space a judgment-free zone
This is an offshoot of the tip about acknowledging their experience, but it goes a step further. Don’t judge your loved one’s grief process. Shame and stigma keep people from leaning on others when they need support because they fear losing control or making a fool of themselves.
And sometimes we put ourselves in the way, even when we don’t mean to. We allow our opinions to impact other people’s issues without even realizing it, which can make holding space extra challenging.
Intervene if you think your loved one may harm themselves or another person, but do this with purpose and compassion. People in emotional pain may do or say things they might not otherwise. Their state of mind may be jumbled, causing them to behave or react strongly. Simply be there to provide a bubble of safety for them when they need it the most.
What Happens If You Can’t Hold Space for a Grieving Loved One?
What can happen if you’re not in the right headspace to support someone in grief? You’re not always going to have the emotional capacity to help a grieving friend or loved one, even if they mean a lot to you. Here’s what can happen if you try it anyway and how to handle it instead.
Your loved one may feel rejected or like their grief doesn’t matter
Once you understand that you can’t support your loved one, you may struggle to find the right words. You want to communicate your concern while letting them know you aren’t in the right headspace to support them. Depending on how you word your comments, you could accidentally leave them feeling rejected or like they’re a low priority. Instead, be genuine in your explanation about what you want and hope for your friend, even if you can’t provide it for them.
How to handle it:
To avoid this, don’t tell a friend you don’t have emotional space or capacity for them. You may not mean any harm, but this can seem unkind. Instead, focus on what you want for them. You’re sorry it can’t be you at the moment and you would if you could. It’s a subtle difference, but focuses on compassion for your loved one and your desire to help, even though you can’t.
You may misunderstand something about their experience
Sometimes we listen to loved ones without really paying attention. We nod our heads or share our thoughts, but we aren’t really present with them. That may not matter a lot when the issues are trivial. But when your loved one is struggling with deep grief, the meaning and struggle they process is the most important thing to them. If you can’t track the process with them accurately, they may sense you were never really paying attention.
How to handle it:
You may not realize you can’t hold space for your loved one until you’ve already begun. In this case, be honest as soon as you know you aren’t able to support them. Don’t go along with the charade anymore once you’re aware. It may feel awkward, but remind them that you care for them. You know they need someone who can sit with you emotionally better than you can right now.
You may create trust issues in your relationship
By attempting to support someone when you aren’t capable, you may unintentionally break the trust in your relationship. Instead of being honest about your situation, your loved one may get the idea that you don’t care or didn’t feel like you could tell the truth.
What to do about it:
Instead of inviting this problem into your relationship, be upfront right away. It won’t feel great to tell your loved one “no” when they’re hurting, but you’ll know that you won’t misrepresent yourself as being emotionally available. Suggest grief counseling and help them find a few suitable options. Assure them that you’ll be thinking of them, and they matter to you. Then be mindful of your mental state so you can be ready to connect later on.
Holding Space for Grief
When you hold space for someone’s grief, you take a sacred responsibility to help them with deep pain and change. It’s a challenging but important role to play, and just because you care about someone doesn’t mean you’ll always be up to the task. Be honest with yourself as you consider how much you can support your loved one. And there are many caring grief counseling specialists that can help if you can’t hold space right now. Help your loved one get the support and care they need, even if you have to say “no.”
1. Cacciatore, J; Thieleman, K; Fretts, R; & Jackson, LB. “What is Good Grief Support? Exploring the Actors and Actions in Social Support After Traumatic Grief.” PloS One, May 27, 2021. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov