Five-Minute Grieving: What to do if a patient, friend, coworker starts crying

 Video: Therapy with Grieving

“Opening Up”, Not “Breaking Down”

Most of the time, we walk around “being” our symptoms instead of “relating” to them. The physician’s office is a place where accidental openings into the “felt senses” underlying symptoms have an increased likelihood of happening. It thus becomes important for physicians, and other health professionals, to capitalize on these moments where the defenses fall, and the preverbal felt experiencing underlying symptoms, becomes available for transformation.

Inter-office conflict or stress at home can also cause a co-worker or employee to “break down” and start crying. Or a friend may become teary while sharing. Instead of being afraid of a “break down,” see it as an “opening up,” an opportunity to unblock and build anew. See Culture of Creativity to understand the Creative Edge Core Principles underlying growth and creativity.

People Are Skilled At “Not Crying”

Five minute grieving is based upon the following premises, drawn from my 25-year experience as a psychotherapist and peer counseling teacher:

  • In general, people do not fall apart and cry and cry without stopping. In general, people do not cry for more than a few minutes at a time.
  • If tears are present, it is healthier for body and mind to allow their expression than to repress them. Tears also are the doorways into The Creative Edge, the possibility for change.
  • In general, people have a life-time of experience in being able to call up their defenses again, and go on as needed after a few moments of crying.
  • In the few cases where crying is uncontrollable, it is better to discover this vulnerability and get help, by referring to a counselor for psychotherapy and/or a psychiatrist for exploration of the appropriateness of anti-depressant medication.
  • In general, spending a few minutes making words for the “intuitive sense” underlying the tears will bring relief to the person, energy to the Listener, and a deep feeling of bonding and care between the two.
  • Allowing the tears also actually releases energy, letting the person go on to next steps of problem solving and action to be taken.

Here follows a first step into the Creative Edge Focusing ™ Core Skills of Intuitive Focusing and Focused Listening which I call “Five Minute Grieving,” especially for health professionals, but also for co-workers and friends in a pinch, if someone tears up or starts crying.  


Example from a physician’s office:

You have just told a patient that tests have shown her to be infertile. Tears well up in her eyes.

  1. Invite her to cry. Say something like the following:
    • "In a minute we can discuss options, but let's make room for your tears."
    • "It's okay with me to let your tears come."
    • "It's okay to cry."
    • "You don't have to hold back your tears."
    • "It's important to let yourself cry."
    • “Just be gentle with yourself. Put your arms around yourself.”

  2. Empathize with the feeling without trying to “fix” it or take it away:
    • "I know it seems bleak right now."
    • "I know it's hard."
    • "I see your sadness."
    • "I'm sorry for your sadness."

  3. Help her to find words or images for the tears. After she has cried for a while or at a natural pause in her tears, say something like:
    • "What are the words for your sadness?"
    • "Are there any words or images with your tears? It helps to get a handle on the feeling."
    • "Can you say what's the worst of it?"
    • "Can you say what you're thinking?"

  4. Just be quiet and give the person some time to grope for words.
    • Empathize again, often by paraphrasing:
    • "So it's (her words: "the fear that you'll never be a mother;" "feeling like a dried up stick," etc.) that's hard."

  5. Continue Steps 1-4 as long as makes sense.
    • Establish closure:
    • "We have to stop now."
    • "We only have a minute before we have to stop."
    • "I have to go, but you're welcome to sit here for a minute until you're ready to go.”
    • Or, if you are now going to continue with other aspects of the visit, “Let’s see if we can put aside the tears for now so that I can give you some more information and we can look for solutions to your situation.”
    • Orient the person, if necessary, by doing a “present time” exercise:
    • “I want to make sure you’re back out in the world before I send you off to drive home (or before we continue talking) . How about if you name all the circular (or orange, or striped, etc.) things in the room?”
    • At the end of the appointment, make a referral to a counselor or support group as appropriate and/or make arrangements for the person to check back with you for a future appointment.

Of course, Five Minute Grieving  is just a first step toward fully incorporating Core Skills of Intuitive Focusing and Focused Listening into your personal and professional life. I hope it will whet your appetite to pursue further training in PRISMS/S and Creative Edge Focusing Pyramid for application of Listening and Focusing at all levels and at home as well as work .

You can begin with Free and Purchased resources by clicking on the Icons in the right sidebar on the main page. Helping professionals can order Dr. McGuire’s manual, The Experiential Dimension in Therapy and, in a Free Phone Consult with Dr. McGuire, can explore our Experiential Focusing Professional Training Program.

Want to learn more about Focused Listening and Intuitive Focusing?

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These materials are offered purely as self-help skills. In providing them, Dr. McGuire is not engaged in rendering psychological, financial, legal, or other professional services. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.