How to Hold Space for Grief and Be an Ally

This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with my friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC. Our conversation was directed primarily at helping our predominately white clients and followers to move towards allyship with BIPOC. Join me for Riverbend Therapy Chats each Monday on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues.

A little more than two weeks ago, a Black man in Minneapolis named George Floyd was killed by police. His death and the deaths of other Black Americans—including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade—over the previous weeks and months have carried us to a moment of national reckoning and grief.

For Black Americans, this grief is, sadly, not new. But I am white, as are many of my clients, and the last few weeks have made me face the pain of racism more profoundly than ever before. Structural racism in this country confers privilege on white people. I believe it’s our responsibility as privileged individuals to to challenge one another and work together for justice.

I have also been thinking about how I can use my lens as a trauma- and grief-informed therapist to help white people—be they clients, friends, or family—understand how to make space for grief or other difficult emotions, and move forward towards collective change.

For this week’s Riverbend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live, I talked with Jesie Steffes, LPC, who also has a background in grief and trauma. We discussed how to hold space for someone who is grieving or in pain, and how to ally ourselves, as white people, with Black people demanding justice.

When we talk about “holding space” we mean making emotional room in our hearts and minds for other people to come and exist. It allows other people to find support while safely sharing difficult feelings and experiences. As therapists, this is what we are trained to do, but it’s often not easy for other people. If you’re learning to hold space for someone who is grieving, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Understand Your Privilege

Whenever we’re holding space for someone, it’s important to first take stock of what inherent privileges we carry, such as our skin color, socioeconomic status, level of education, gender, or physical abilities. First, we can meditate on the privileges we have and acknowledge them internally, and then as we’re listening and holding space we can be aware of how our privilege might shape our perspective.

2. Get Uncomfortable

In holding space, we should be prepared to encounter emotions or experiences that challenge us or make us uncomfortable. In such situations it’s natural to feel the urge to say or do something that might soothe the other person’s pain so that we can move back into a space in which we feel comfortable. Resist that urge. Instead, we need to try our best to recognize and sit with our discomfort, so we can meet the other person where they are mentally or emotionally.

3. A Relationship of Equals

Our first impulse when someone is hurting may be to share our own experiences with pain. But doing so actually pushes our thoughts, our interpretation, and our privilege into the other person’s emotional space. This creates a relationship of inequality and sends the message: "I am the healer, and you are the wounded." Instead we should remember what Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.” When we hold space for someone, we should strive to be a witness to their emotions, approach their pain with humility and a willingness to learn, and send the message "I am with you, beside you."

Holding space for pain and grief is one way we can ally ourselves with Black people and work to undo systemic racism. But for many of us, living “allyship” as a verb may be a new experience. Here are some guiding principles Jesie and I discussed:

1. Learn Responsibly

Educating ourselves about systemic racism and white privilege is a positive step towards becoming an ally. But as we learn we must recognize that it’s a privilege to learn about what other people experience, and we must take responsibility for our own education. When we ask BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to provide resources, share personal experiences, tell us what to do, or listen to our guilt or pain, we are not relieving their suffering. We are just depleting them of their emotional and physical energy. Instead, when we do the work of educating ourselves (see below for resources) we are taking an important step towards repairing what has been broken in ourselves, and we are giving those who are suffering space and time to heal.