I’m Grieving and You Don’t Know “Just How I Feel”

Supporting a Griever Supporting a Griever : Litsa Williams


There are a lot of phrases that piss off people grieving, but perhaps none so much as “I know just how you feel”. Ask someone grieving to list the most annoying things people said to them in their grief. I promise this will often be near the top of the list. It is often coupled closely with the similar, “oh this reminds me of when (insert their experience here)”. You would think people want empathy in grief, yet this common phrase doesn’t seem to do it. But why? What is the instinct to say this about? Why does it ruffle feathers?

Understanding empathy

In its most basic definition, ‘empathy Is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. It sounds incredibly easy but anyone who has experienced a loss knows that it suddenly doesn’t feel easy. Friends who they expected would be there for them are suddenly gone, or rushing them in their grief, saying to be strong, telling them what, when, and how to grieve. These words often leave people grieving feeling like empathy in grief is an impossibility. It feels like no one understands what you’re going through. 

Why shortcuts don’t work 

One of the greatest misunderstandings of empathy is the feeling that we must have a similar experience to someone who is suffering in order to see or understand their pain. We see someone else’s pain and we want them to feel seen. We worry they won’t believe we can truly see them and their pain if we haven’t experienced it. So, rather than the hard work of carefully listening, attending, and supporting them, we try to take a shortcut. In an effort to seek common ground, we search our experiences for something similar. Something we, in a well-intentioned way, believe will allow us to better connect and for them to feel more seen. And that’s the misstep.  This is one of those instances when our grief-support instincts are off (and not the only one!). Instead of making someone feel seen and showing them we were present, listening, and trying to support, we show them the opposite. We make obvious that instead of being present and with them, that when they shared their pain we looked at ourselves instead. We often unintentionally minimize their pain by taking something that is different and try to make it the same. Now, this isn’t to say we haven’t gone through things – we have. We may have experienced very real, similar, painful and difficult things. But in a moment when someone is grieving their own personal loss, one that is theirs and theirs alone, what becomes important is not what we have gone through. It is being able to focus and be present with what they have gone through.

But wait, my loss is helping me understand them. I swear.

If you’re feeling like I’m saying you need to filter sharing your grief experience because it is going to upset someone else grieving, I want to make one thing very clear. This isn’t just about you upsetting them by not seeing them. This is about you and really looking at whether this path to ‘understanding’ them is the best path.  When we take that shortcut to empathy, quickly moving from their experience to our own, we suddenly put our own story and experience front and center in our minds. Instead of just listening carefully and being present with their experience and feelings, we start to project our experience and feelings onto them. We start to assume our own feelings from our own similar experience must be what that other person is feeling and experiencing too. By remembering how we felt, we actually become less able to hear honestly how they are feeling. Our brains are now busy thinking about the connections to our own story, or about what we are going to say next to tell them about us. Empathy research shows that it is helpful to imagine the feelings of another, but when we dig into our own narrative to connect we actually don’t see their experience as clearly. 

Our pain impacts how we see their pain (and that isn’t always good!)

There is a lot of research that shows that we always have a tendency to see others’ pain through the lens of our own pain. There are neurons in our brain that actually contribute to this! What this means is that I use how I feel to make sense of how someone else feels. In a study around physical pain, they gave participants an electric shock. They then watched someone else receive an electric shock. Participants then how rated much they thought the other person suffered. In part two, they gave some people a pill that reduced their personal perception of pain. Then, you guessed it, another electric shock. Next they watched someone else (who hadn’t been given a painkiller) receive an electric shock. Guess what. They rated the other person as experiencing less pain, because they personally experienced less pain. Even though there is no reason for us to assume the other person experienced less pain, because they didn’t receive anything that would reduce pain!  That might not seem that big of a deal, but if we think about it for a moment, it can have a real impact. If we associate their experience with our similar experience, suddenly we gauge their pain based on how intense ours was. Perhaps our pain was never as bad. Or perhaps our pain has started feeling easier to carry, because we have become stronger. Though we remember our pain was bad, we don’t feel it in the same. Now when we see their pain, we may minimize it a bit because we can’t help but impose our own strength, that we have gained with time and work, on them. But they haven’t had the opportunity to gain that strength yet. As the researcher in this study said, “If you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce analgesia [inability to feel pain], that not only helps people to deal with their own pain, but it also reduces empathy for the pain of another person,” Lamm said.

But sometimes I really do know how they feel! I went through the same thing!

We’re not being unreasonable here. If you have experienced something similar you may relate deeply to another person; you may have more understanding than someone who hasn’t been through something similar. In fact, that same empathy research shows that when we have been through something, we are able to better understand it when we see another going through it than if we hadn’t. And we know that there is great comfort in meeting someone else who has been through what you have been through. This is one reason peer support groups can be helpful. It can be comforting to meet someone else who has also lost a loved one to overdose or suicide, or someone else who has lost a spouse or a child. But grief is always as unique as the individual person and their relationship with the person they lost, and we can’t forget that.

So . . . what should I do?

What is most important is to enter the interaction with the assumption that your similar loss does have value, but it doesn’t give you an automatic understanding.  Then focus on listening, being present, reflecting back what you are hearing from them. Do that without comparing it to your loss or looking at it through your own experience. In the end, it is our ability to say “we have both gone through some things. I have not gone through exactly what you have gone through. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to listen and do my best to understand” that helps. It can make a person feel more seen and heard in their grief. From that place, they know you are thinking of them, not yourself, and you are open to supporting them through their story and experience – whatever it may be. Want more grief support, right to your email inbox? Of course you do! Subscribe for one email each week with new grief support content! 

Let’s be grief friends.

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22 Comments on "I’m Grieving and You Don’t Know “Just How I Feel”"

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  1. TM Reddin  June 6, 2020 at 9:03 am Reply

    I often have thought that what I think about the loss of my husband is so different from how my friend who lost her husband a few months before mine passed. Also my husband’s mom is dealing with different grief than I am. I found it strange to find more comfort being with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law than my friend, and I guess it was because of the actual person we were missing than just the relationship. However, my mom feels grief over the loss of her son-in-law and I get no understanding or comfort from my own mom because she doesn’t want to listen to my grief “about” the kind of relationship loss I’ve endured. Also, friends who continually say “I just can’t imagine” infuriates me as “you can imagine”. All I can figure is that they do not want to think about how hard I have it and they are too scared to listen.

    • GaryB  June 7, 2020 at 8:52 pm Reply

      I lost my wife of 38 years and basically her entire family as well. All I feel those people were thinking when they were around was “thank God it wasnt us” as they are all married and some much older than she was at 62. I get offended knowing they all still gather at the beach as a family and cant help but be envious they still got theirs. There was not one of them wanting to deal with my grief-my loss. They dont call and they ran out of town after funeral mass breakfast so fast nobody said goodbye-thanks-or even came to speak with mt. But they passed my childrens and mine table filling up their guts for their 6 hour ride home without a glance at us. It was weird and strange and the “we just didnt know what to say” BS dont cut it.
      As you say they dont want to hear anything but that I am doing fine or best I can when I do see them. Not a one asks-how you really doing because they dont want to know.

  2. bill donahue  June 7, 2020 at 3:09 am Reply

    To reiterate some of the passages I’ve just read, most people would like to categorize the grief into their own understanding of the subject by using someone in their life that has passed. “You know my Uncle was married to my aunt Clare for nearly 70 years, Imagine that? Imagine waking up everyday with the same person, your loving spouse, for 70 years? I mean that is pretty tough. Now wait just a second, are you referring to my best friend since 5 years old, soul-sharing, connected at the hip, siamese twin of a brother, closer than any family member bond could possibly be, the person that was next to me through thick and thin, through all of our childhood to adult changes, good and bad. Through those ingrained changes that make us who we are by growing together during those most impressionable years of young love, loss, and every other possible phase of life. Where he stayed side by side with me for 55 more years, went to every family event as part of our family and not one person ever said hello to me without asking, “Hows’s Larry or where’s Larry” and vice versa, then hung himself to death after a fight with me. You are saying that’s similar to your aunt Clare’s husband passing at 92? Well, the only conclusion I can draw is everyone’s pain is his or her own. However, I personally beg to differ which situation may be more daunting and more challenging to recover from. I just hope I can.

    • Shirl  June 9, 2020 at 6:29 am Reply

      Jesus Bill that’s one of the saddest most moving things I’ve ever heard.

      No words.

      I am not religious but I just wish you love and support in your life going forward. And I believe anyone reading your words will be sending you similar thoughts.

  3. anonymous  June 8, 2020 at 6:07 am Reply

    I’m reminded of the poet John Keats, who wrote these powerfully simple words—
    “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.”
    This quote helps me.
    I know, and trust, my own sense of myself, and whether I feel safe in someone’s company.
    If I feel unsafe, I say quietly, “I have to go home now.”
    Because home is safe. And people’s words, or energies, can put me off-balance.
    I shared a life and a love with one person for more than half of my life.
    To be loved as I was, and still am, from the place where he is now, is my comfort.
    Peace to all who read this.

    • Mary McDade  June 8, 2020 at 4:43 pm Reply

      I totally relate to this comment. I had something for 37 years that some people don’t have in an entire lifetime. I was greatly loved and feel I am still loved. This is what gets me up every morning.

    • Lou  June 8, 2020 at 5:03 pm Reply

      Thank you for your wise words. My home is my safe place and where I feel my dear husbands prescence with me.

  4. Amy  June 8, 2020 at 3:18 pm Reply

    I am mourning the loss of my husband, best friend, trusted confident who died from metastatic prostate cancer 10 weeks ago. We were together for 50 years…basically grew up together from the ages of 15 and 17. Constant companions and partners. Just when I think I have this sadness under control, the flood gates reopen and I ride the waves of grief. I do understand that this is my journey and attempt not to lay it at my sisters and friends feet. I see the look of anguish when they see me choking up when talking about Jack. I find myself apologizing for crying, struggling with expressing my thoughts and sorrow.

    I have never experienced anything like this and pray that my healing progresses.

    • Shirl  June 9, 2020 at 6:15 am Reply

      Dear Amy
      I lost my husband and Soulmate nearly 8 months ago and it still feels like yesterday.
      We had been together for 46 years. We were lovers and friends.
      You’re post and obvious pain just resonated with me.
      I can offer few words of comfort because I am too broken myself to be able to help anyone but I realised reading your post that I really wish I could help you.
      I often wish I could just move in with someone who is going through what I am just so that we could prop each other up.
      I know live alone a four bedroomed house (I am in the UK) and the silence is deafening. This house once filled with love, laughter and music now feels sad and empty.
      I read everything I can on the afterlife trying to work out where my husband is now and how to connect with him. I realise I am not doing so well. We have children and grandchildren, his legacy, our legacy.
      This awful pain is just relentless but… every now and then I experienced a short moment of joy in the hear and now and I get a glimps of a future in which I could possibly survive in without him.
      I will probably be on the floor in a heap sobbing soon after this ‘glimps’ but these fleeting moments offer a small crumb of hope that one day I will emerge into the light once again and be able to honour his memory in a more fitting way. But not yet.
      I hope one day you too will have these moments and see a path through this unimaginably painful time. My heart goes out to you.

      • Amy  June 11, 2020 at 4:58 pm

        Thank you for sharing your experience…there really are not correct words to describe all that embraces us at this time. I am walking through each day with hope and imagining what my husband would want me to do with this. I am sorry for the pain…prayers that we can heal and be a vehicle of God’s love and light ??

    • Trina Meek  June 9, 2020 at 11:03 am Reply

      Dear Amy – My husband died a year ago of metastatic prostate cancer. We were also together since high school (54 years), soulmates, partners, all the good things. I just want you to know I hear you, and I hear your pain. Places like these are where you CAN lay your sadness and grief. I don’t know if you are yet where you want to, or can, hear words of hope, and wherever you are is ok. There IS healing possible, it is worth struggling for, it comes in your time and its time. I am so sorry that your husband died. Sending love and hugs.

      • Amy  June 11, 2020 at 4:53 pm

        Thank you for your kind words. We are walking similar paths in sorrow. Sending you love and hugs…we will get through this ??

  5. Dee  June 8, 2020 at 4:45 pm Reply

    I recently lost my 41 year old (first-born) son whom I was estranged from. I have what I would call complex grief. I never stopped loving my son but what I did to make myself strong through his rejection now the switch just flipped back on. Then my family acts like I didn’t love him or not enough as they love theirs. I told them serial killers moms love them you can’t turn it off or it was never love in the beginning! Friends avoid me and some colleagues. I’ve decided whomever was too selfish to be my friend through all of this I don’t need them as a friend. I hear well people don’t know what to say you simply say I’m sorry for your loss! But no they are too worried about their own discomfort. Fine I don’t want or need you in my life. Strangers have been more compassionate!

  6. Jamie  June 8, 2020 at 6:22 pm Reply

    Sharing this. I get so tired of hearing “but you had her do long,” “well I kiss my mom too, “ and “everybody goes through this.” All I can say is “None of you are me and no one else has this loss. My world is gone. I am shattered. You feeling better does not help me! Just listen, please. Quit pointing out how inconvenient my grief is for you.”

    • MelissaJane  June 12, 2020 at 3:46 pm Reply

      My mother died last August at age 96. So many people said, “oh, you shouldn’t be sad, she had a wonderful life and you had her with you for so long.” As if that eliminated my heartbreak, my feeling of being completely untethered. We are walking similar paths and I hope you are finding your way through each day.

  7. debra l dizon hernandez  June 9, 2020 at 11:28 pm Reply

    Great article..I am with parent of murdered children. I find this article to be very useful

  8. Bb.Bray  June 10, 2020 at 5:08 am Reply

    There is a saying “ life goes on” does it, does it really, not for me.
    I put on that brave face because no one really wants to see me let alone know how I’m feeling or coping.
    I hate the way I crumble to my knees and then have to put on a show so nobody feels embarrassed.
    I hate the way everybody else’s grief and problems is more important then mine, are these comparisons supposed to make me feel better .
    But as the saying goes “life goes on” for everyone else maybe, just not me.

    • MelissaJane  June 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm Reply

      I hear you BB. After my mother died, I shrank inside whenever someone said “Life goes on.” Not when time has stopped and you can’t imagine being in the world without someone. I’ve learned a lot about grief by grieving, and by being with (present for, simply sitting with) people who are grieving. I’ve been learning every day for 10 months.

  9. Ellen  June 13, 2020 at 7:15 pm Reply

    I lost my Mom just 5 weeks ago. That pain is deep. So deep. Only 60 years old, stage 4 lung cancer. It was pretty unexpected. She fought for 2 years, seemed to be okay, then just went downhill in a flash. I talked to her 3-4 times a week for my entire adult life. That rug just got yanked out from under me. But I have the grief of an adult Daughter….my Dad’s grief, my Brother’s, my Aunt’s..all different from my grief. We are all feeling this together, but completely independent journeys. And we all hate it when we hear “just be strong. You’ll be okay.”

    No. No I won’t. And that’s okay too.

  10. Sally  June 14, 2020 at 5:00 pm Reply

    Dear Amy, reading your comment was like you were writing about me , almost 8 months since my husbands passing although we were marries 61 years so much was what I am also experiencing. I pray we can both endure our loss and find joy again for more than just a few minutes without the intense sadness that follows.
    Blessings,

    Sally

  11. C Johnson  June 25, 2020 at 4:07 am Reply

    I don’t know how to process grief, at all. My father died seventeen years ago, I was twenty-three, and I swear to you, the anger I feel at his dying has not gone away. It changed me. It scares me. For so long I blamed myself. I told myself that I should’ve forced my father to see a doctor, when he just kept brushing how he was feeling off. His death was sudden, but I watched him, while holding my one year old son, have a seizure and he died later at the hospital. My mother is in end stage renal failure, I’m watching her slowly die, and I’ve gotten worse. I can’t sleep and I have frequent panic attacks. My rage towards the smallest thing has grown worse. I;m just angry, all the time. I have children, and sometimes it scares me because I love them, but I don’t want to hurt them, or anyone. I can’t show my mother how I really feel because she worries about me so much. It’s horrible and I don’t know how much longer I can pretend to be okay with things the way they are.

    • Anthea  June 29, 2020 at 8:53 pm Reply

      It’s OK to feel like this. Please reach out to someone close to you, or even a professional. I lost my mother 8 years ago and feel the same unceasing anger as you.

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