The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear

The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear

I have carried a couple of buckets with me for the last twenty years. They are my props when I am talking about what helps people with their grief. I ask someone to hold one of the buckets and tell them to imagine they have just lost a loved one. The bucket represents their feelings and I asked them to express what feelings they think would be in their bucket. I ask the audience to join in and words like pain, fear, grief, loneliness, empty, anger, guilt and sometimes relief. I then ask what thoughts would be going through their minds and such phrases as: Can I stand this pain? Who will take care of me now? How much will the funeral cost? What do I need to do now? What is expected of me?

Then I ask what frustrations would be in the bucket and get a large variety of responses. What I am trying to portray is that people in grief are overwhelmed emotionally, mentally, physically and even socially.

Then I produce the second bucket and say, “I also have a bucket. It is full of explanations, platitudes, new ways to think, and scriptures to quote. These are designed to make you feel better and they are all I know how to do.” Then I say the problem is your bucket is full to overflowing. There is no room for what I have to say, and my words run off like water no matter how wonderful they sound. I also say, “I am afraid of your bucket. I don’t know what to say and the intimacy scares me, so I say, “I am sorry and run.”

I was asked to speak about guilt and anger in grief fat at a conference for grieving parents. I asked them to tell me what they felt guilty about and many did so. One lady said, “All the way to the hospital my son begged me to turn back he did not want the transplant, he was afraid. I did not turn back and he died.”

I asked her how many times she had heard such things as:
“You were acting out of love”
“Without the transplant he would have died anyway”
“God had a reason,” or
“God won’t put more on us than”
And she stopped me by saying those did not help and that last one makes me angry. Then I asked if it would help if I offered to hug her and said, “That must really hurt?” and she said that would help.

Now why would that help? Because I am acknowledging her pain and not trivializing it. That feels like I am in her bucket with her and she is not alone. I learned some valuable lessons that day that I would like to share, and think are vitally important to know right now.

We are totally surrounded and enmeshed in a world of full buckets. At this writing more that 50,000 people have died of the virus sweeping our nation. That number must be added to the number of folks that have died of other causes during this time. Add to the buckets of pain the fact that all of those who died in a hospital or healthcare facility died alone with no family or friends to comfort… adding guilt, regret, anger, and a much harder grieving experience to their pain. Many families will not even be able to have the comfort of a funeral or even the chance to see their loved one after they have died.

Add to that the buckets of grief from lost jobs, shattered careers, financial distress, marital strain, children out of school, fears about everything from food shortages to an actual depression and every neighborhood in our world has folks with full buckets.

The great need right now is for us to figure out how to help our friends, loved ones and neighbors empty their buckets. We don’t have to be some kind of professional to be of help. We just need to know how to listen. We need to understand and believe in the awesome power of the listening ear. Maybe sharing what I learned that day and the fifty years I have spent trying to listen will be of help.

We Cannot Help People Until We Know Where They Are
And we cannot know where they are until we listen. Responding to pain is not a guessing game. Nor is it a time to just throw up a bunch of nice sounding platitudes and hope one of them hits. The key is to open the conversation and ask how they are. They will most likely say they are fine but if we just keep talking and taking care to listen to what they are saying they may very well begin to gradually open up and share what is really going on in their lives.

Healing Begins in the Others Person’s Bucket
It never begins in our bucket. We have nothing in our buckets that will empty theirs. There are no magic words or phrases that will heal. Buckets are only being emptied when the one holding it is doing the talking. As they talk, they are bleeding off the feelings and emotions that are flooding their minds and hearts.

This means we do not have to worry about what to say or fear saying the wrong thing. They need to tell their story and be understood. There is power in that word. The longer I study the impact it can make the more impressed I am. Basically we all just want to be understood. All of us have things going on inside of us we would give anything to be able to put into words and have them accepted and understood by some significant person.

That Must Really Hurt is the Most Healing Thing We Can Say
Sounds strange and certainly different from how we normally approach helping someone in grief or pain. We want to play it down and take their minds off of the pain. They desperately need to say it, and have it understood.

To me the key word in grief is significance. When bad things happen to us the first thing we need and want to do is establish the significance of the event. A child with even a slight bruise wants a band-aid and then shows off their boo-boo to everyone they can find. After everyone has seen it, the band-aid can come off. That is human nature. That is establishing significance. If they can establish the significance of what has happened, they can begin to move on. I think folks who seem to park and never get past a grief or trauma were never able to get their pain and loss heard and understood.

So, What Can We Do?
I know this sounds simplistic but there are more stories needing to be told right now than any time in recent history. We need listening ears and caring hearts to follow three simple words that begin with “H”.

Trust presence, if you are there you have been a help. If you can’t be there physically, then phone calls, Facetime, or other virtual presence is still presence.

Trust touch. If appropriate a hug is worth a thousand words. A hand held can do the same. At this time, we may have to rely on virtual hugs.

Trust silence. We really don’t have to fix it or even have an answer. Just lay ears on them.

I have opened a new email address to offer help to any who needs help in listening or anyone who can’t find a place to tell their story. It will be there until I can no longer keep up. Please know that I don’t see well so write it large and as short as possible. Thank you. My email address is and my ears are open.


Doug Manning is founder and Owner of InSight Books and co-Founder of InSight Institute Certified Celebrant Program. He is the author of over 40 books in the areas or grief and elder care. You may email him at