By Courtney Newbery
As she walked into the room, eyes puffy from crying, my normally chatty group of friends fell into a deafening silence. Glances were averted and hands began busying themselves with any available distraction. An elephant was definitely in the room, and no one knew quite what to do with it. Unable to handle the exhausting stillness, a well-intentioned friend blurted out, “You don’t have to cry about it. He’s in Heaven.” Hurt and frustrated, the grieving widow headed for the door.
It’s hard to know what to say when people are grieving. We want to say something, but simple platitudes don’t feel sufficient, so often we say nothing at all. Silence, in the form of avoidance, can leave an even deeper wound than our bumbling words. Loving someone through the pain is the privilege we have as friends, family, and members of the body of Christ. But what do people really want to hear when they have suffered a loss?
WHAT GRIEVING PEOPLE NEED
As a former hospice counselor, I have had the intimate experience of walking through life and death with people. One of the most commonly asked questions I encountered was: “How do I talk to my friends or family members about their loss?”
Based on my interaction with hundreds of grieving families, I have compiled some suggestions on how to relate to someone who is grieving. Hopefully these notes will keep you from “foot-in-mouth” syndrome and allow you to compassionately comfort those who are hurting.
Don’t Say: I know how you feel. There is no way to know how someone is feeling after a loss, no matter how similar a situation we may have faced. Telling a friend or family member that we know how he feels turns the focus off of him (where it should be) and on to us (where it should not be).
Do Say: I have no idea how you’re feeling, but I am here for you. This comment validates the feelings of our friend and provides him with a safe place. In the Bible, Job’s friends sat with him for seven days and said nothing, simply offering him their support. (Afterward they opened their big mouths with unsolicited advice.) A ministry of presence is life-giving to a friend in need.
Don’t Say: Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. General statements like this are overwhelming to someone who is suffering. Rarely are people in grief able to generate ideas for ways to help, as their focus is on the loss.
Do Say: Let me watch your kids or come over and clean your kitchen. Extending specific help to the griever is often more beneficial. Instead of making your services available whenever they are needed, just assume you are needed now. Take action instead of waiting for your friends to ask you, because they probably never will.
Don’t Say: It’s time to move forward. Every person grieves in a different way, at a distinct pace. Rushing someone through the process can be both frustrating and detrimental to her future health.
Do Say: I support your grieving process. Allow your friend to heal according to her specific needs. Letting her know that you are there for her, no matter how long it may take or how difficult it may become, is an invaluable gift.
Don’t Say: Be strong. You don’t need to cry. Sometimes people do need to cry. One of the most healing steps a grieving person can take is to let out his emotions through tears. Denying him permission to weep over his loss has the potential to lead to depression and prolonged suffering. We often discourage a friend from crying because we are uncomfortable watching him walk through his grief. Mourning is difficult and messy, but absolutely necessary.
Do Say: Can I give you a hug? Sometimes a simple gesture can convey a deeper meaning than any words. We can be the shoulder our friend uses to cry on. People cry in front of those they trust. If a friend uses you as his giant tissue, know you are trusted.
Don’t Say: It will get better. Cognitively a family member might know that her circumstances will change over time, but emotionally she needs to be able to live in the moment. By making this statement, we inadvertently place a timeline on someone’s grieving process. Instead of helping her through the feelings she is currently facing, we push her prematurely toward the future. We must stay in the present with our grieving friend.
Do Say: How can I specifically pray for you? Take your friend’s burdens directly to God. Only he can ultimately heal her heart. Calling our friend to prayer with us will either provide her a platform to articulate her thoughts or allow you the opportunity to put words to her hurt.
GRIEVING LIKE JESUS
Jesus experienced grief at the loss of his friend Lazarus. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters (John 11:5). Upon hearing about his sickness, Jesus traveled to Bethany to be with the family. When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus knew that Lazarus would be brought back to life, yet he chose to stay in the present moment with Mary and Martha and grieve with them. “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled” (John 11:33, New Living Translation).
Anger is a common emotion when dealing with loss and grief. We become angry that someone we love was taken from us. Angry that we did not get a chance to say goodbye. Angry at God for not caring. The reasons for a person’s anger may differ, but they are all rooted in the same source: the brokenness of the world, which causes physical and spiritual death, hurts.
Jesus saw his friend Mary weeping over the loss of her brother, and his response was to cry (John 11:35). The Savior of the universe broke down into a sobbing mess. It seems that he was showing empathy toward Mary. One of the most significant ways that we can comfort those who are suffering is to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15, New International Version). This means, simply, get a box of tissues and sit on the couch with your friend. Be present in her time of need. Jesus also appears to be weeping over the brokenness of humanity, which led to death, specifically the death of Lazarus.
Who do you know who is suffering from a loss right now? How could you use your presence or your words to comfort him or her with the same comfort you have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4)?
Courtney Newbery is a freelance writer in Naples, Florida.
“How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”
Susan Silk and Barry Goldman came up with a bull’s-eye graph to help people make sure they don’t say the wrong thing to the wrong person during times of crisis. Read their brief article from the LA Times.