Companioning as a Reflection of Love
Author: Alan Wolfelt
To experience and embrace the pain of loss is just as much a part of life as to experience the joy of love. As they should be, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from the death of a person who has been loved are impossible to ignore. The experience of grief is very powerful. As we encounter personal loss in our lives, we have the opportunity to make a willful choice of how we are going to use the pain of the grief — whether we are going to channel it to make our lives better or worse.
At the very heart of companioning is the need to acknowledge each other as equals, not as “therapist” and “patient.” What makes us all equals is that we are all human beings who will come to know the pain and suffering that emanates from the loss of those we have loved. We need each other.
Companioning can only take place among equals. If anyone believes she has superior knowledge of another’s journey into grief, this belief destroys the foundation of a relationship anchored in unconditional love. Those who project what I call “superior expertise” can’t help but “treat” the mourner, and usually — consciously or unconsciously — try to achieve some variation of “closure.” When we see each other as equals, we don’t misuse each other. Acknowledging each other as equals is a reflection of love.
Companioning is also about compassionate curiosity. When we support each other with this humility, we open our hearts to another human being. Curiosity encourages us to take off our professional masks and create a sacred, hospitable, free space for the mourner. It takes time and conscious effort to create this space in a mourning-avoidant culture. Compassionate curiosity encourages us to extend ourselves rather than withdraw into our own worlds. Yes, companioning invites us to extend ourselves, open our hearts wide, be still and really listen.
Companioning also depends on our willingness to reject grief as a pathology or illness and not think of our role as eradicating emotional and spiritual suffering. We must surrender to the wilderness to be willing to wander into the mystery. We have to expect chaos, confusion, disorder and even despair. So-called “negative” emotions and experiences are not dangerous. Messiness has its place. Grief, loss and change always start with confusion. We can’t be companions if we refuse to be confused. Integration of loss often occurs in the space of not knowing. We don’t need to be joined at the head with a mourner; we need to be joined at the heart.
Just as we face choices in our personal experiences with loss, we also face choices in serving as companions to those in grief. We can choose to help people avoid the work of their grief, or we can support and accompany people as they fully enter into their grief. If we are able to achieve the latter, chances are we can become catalysts for divine momentum and a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in the lives of our fellow human beings.
Companioning is not a technique or a therapy; it is a philosophy and a discipline for every hour, every day, every week, every month and every year of your life. For me, that means:
- Finding passion and purpose in ministering to those in grief
- Attending to those things in life that give my life richness and purpose
- Having gratitude each day for my family and friends
- Trying to fulfill my destiny, by developing my soul’s potential
- Striving to “give back” what others have given me
- Observing what is requesting my attention, and giving attention to it
- Going out into nature and having gratitude for the beauty of the universe
- Praying that I’m living “on purpose” and using my gifts
- Going through my own struggles with grief and realizing that it is working through these wounds that helps unite me with others
Every day we have the opportunity to be companions, to listen with our hearts, and to be curious rather than certain. I hope you choose to see your heart opening to people experiencing grief. When your heart is open, you are receptive to what life brings you, both happy and sad. By “staying open,” you create a pathway to living life fully.
From the pen of…
A longtime TAPS supporter, Dr. Alan Wolfelt serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and has written many books that help people mourn, including “Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death” (co-authored with TAPS President Bonnie Carroll). Visit centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.