Grief can strike at any time, any place: school, work, church, the grocery, on a plane, a bus, in prison, online – anywhere. Regardless of when and where such feelings occur, they are not wrong or inappropriate; they are natural responses to the death of a loved one, and should be respected. When someone near you is overcome with grief and having a hard time functioning, it is possible to provide sanctuary by helping him feel as safe and comfortable as possible, and being present to listen, console, and offer resources.
Bereavement sanctuaries are places in which those in grief may feel safe and comfortable enough to express – or not express – the pain of their loss, free of others’ expectations. A bereavement sanctuary can be a permanent place, in which people may stay or live and be able to grieve on their own terms; or it may be established temporarily, during emergencies or at any time when someone is experiencing horrible feelings of grief.
In a grocery store or restaurant, for example, this might be the area by the restrooms. On a bus, train, or plane, it could be an area where there are rows of empty seats. In a church or school you might go into the hall, or find a lobby, and in a park you could sit on a bench or under a tree. Use the natural features around you to find areas of relative comfort.
Ask the person to follow. If she agrees, walk to the chosen area and ask how you may help. Ask if you may call a family member or a friend. If the person seems in trouble, you might offer to call for help (you should have police, suicide hotline, and shelter numbers programmed into your cell phone).
If the person is overcome with grief and unable to move, then use the spot where he is standing or sitting as best you can. In a grocery checkout line, or a crowded movie theater, this may be problematic, especially if the person is sobbing or shouting or screaming. The people around you may express annoyance, but you can explain that the two of you will move as soon as possible.
When grief erupts on the phone or online, the physical setting is not so important, but you can suggest that the suffering person move to a room or area inside or outside that feels more comfortable. You might wish to seek greater comfort for yourself; your ability to feel safe and calm directly affects the mood you project.
Whether you are creating sanctuary in person, on the phone, or online, relax as much as possible by taking deep breaths, and focusing on the person in grief; this will help everyone relax.
In a physical setting, offer a beverage if you can, but don’t pressure the person to accept it.
Say, “Please tell me what’s going on. I am here to help.” The person may or may not respond. If she does, be present: attentive but not forceful; interested, yet quiet unless asked or guided to provide helpful input; warm yet not stifling. Try to listen as carefully as possible. Do not interrupt with stories about yourself.
Allow him to express anger, hurt, confusion, unreality, and despair, and let him know by your calm presence, or with words, that it is okay. Be prepared for the person in grief to seem completely disconnected from the reality you are in. Do your best to protect him from hurting himself or others. If necessary, call 911 for help. Working well with whatever environment you may find yourself in can make an enormous difference in this regard.
Most important is the ability to improvise, so that wherever you are, your presence is a safe place in which people may express grief. When you create sanctuary, even with just a kind word or glance, you are a friend along the road.