Susan Brady and I were inseparable—best friends from the moment we met. A few days before Christmas in 1965, Susan disappeared. Just like Susie Salmon in the novel and film The Lovely Bones, weeks of anguish passed before police found her dismembered body.

But my Susan was not a fictional character in a book. She was real. Her murder left me with a penetrating ache so deep that it became a pivot point in my youth, forcing me out of innocence overnight. At age eleven I trusted no one enough to reach out and ask for help. There was no one to listen to the roiling thoughts in my head or bear witness to the terror I felt. No one protected me from the nightmares that came each time I closed my eyes.

Twenty-three years after Susan’s murder, my childhood experience inspired me to create Children to Children, a support center for grieving children and adults. Being There for Someone in Grief begins with my journey through grief, and unfolds into the lives of the many people with whom I’ve worked. Each story of healing is accompanied by introspective insights that offer up the essential things we must know in order to be there for someone in their darkest hour.

I didn’t do the work alone. Many volunteers from all walks of life, of different ages and from varied cultures, showed up on Children to Children’s doorstep to offer their help. They were ordinary folks who felt a calling. We trained them and put them to work helping those in our community— children and adults—to heal from profound losses. Grief and loss are inevitable. In the span of a lifetime, each of us will be called on to be there for others we love and care about as they grieve, just as one day we will need friends to be there for us. We respond to this call by doing it, by courageously facing the sorrows as well as the joys of life. Being There for Someone in Grief explores the sweet, mysterious terrain where we all take turns loving, grieving, and holding one another through the unavoidable pain of loss.

We opened our doors and they came, lots of them: children, teenagers, parents, grandparents. At one time or another, in intimate conversation, most who were grieving said that those who loved them—their parents, their best friends, their siblings—had no clue how to be helpful. Instead, family and friends came armed with advice. They talked too much and had no sense of how to listen generously. They were uncomfortable with tears. They tried to fix. Sometimes they made demands. Other times they disappeared altogether. Those who were grieving had no strength right then to teach their family and friends how to be helpful; most of their precious energy was being directed toward healing from their loss and simply surviving each day.

Over the years, I’ve tried to find simple ways to help ordinary people know what to do and remember how to be when in the company of someone in sorrow. A simple acronym, SALT— as in the salt of tears—emerged as a teaching tool to help learn by heart four basic premises for support. Four chapters in the book, a chapter for each letter, are dedicated to illustrating each skill:

  • See them.
  • Allow them.
  • Listen to them.
  • Trust them.

If you can simply See those in grief without acting on the urge to do something right away, you have taken the first step toward helping them to heal. Your unconditional compassion, without criticism and without your own projection, will Allow them to do what they need to. They may need to talk; your best response would be to Listen generously, without interruption, without asking questions or telling your own story. And finally, Trust that within them is everything they need to traverse this difficult path. They do not need your rescue. They need your quiet, steady faith in their resilience.

If you are a person in the midst of grief, this book was written on your behalf. When friends call and ask if there is anything they can do to help, you can ask them to read this book as a gift to you, and perhaps in honor of the person who died. Invite them to take this journey with you.

If you are someone who wishes to walk beside a grieving friend in a way that is welcomed, helpful, respectful, and kind, this book was written for you—to be used as a trusted guide. Here you will learn how to be present for another in the unpredictability that death brings. It offers a general map of the landscape you will journey as you learn how to gaze into the face of suffering without running away. You will also become skilled at being present for yourself, noticing your own fears and losses while being available to another.

The stories and insights offered here will assure you we are all on a journey from birth to death and that the person you love who is grieving will return from that dark night, although both of you may be changed. This book will help you learn to stay, even when it’s hard. And if you should decide to be there authentically and intimately for someone who is grieving, a miraculous thing can happen: Love can heal grief’s wound.

With gratitude, Marianna Cacciatore

Stephen Levine on Being There for Someone in Grief

“Marianna’s life work is just what the heart calls for when, as Merton said, ‘Prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.’ This book is more than simply educational, it is a star map of the heavens we must cross; the anguish that no matter how well we love, we cannot protect our loved ones from loss and unimaginable pain at times, and must continue to Braille out some sense of value in the moment. Being There for Someone in Grief does just that.”

Stephen Levine, author of Breaking the Drought; A Year to Live; Healing into Life and Death and Who Dies?