We will all experience grief at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean we know how to handle it, or how to help others who are grieving. Traditional methods of helping a grieving person typically do more harm than good. As I’ve studied to become a counselor, I’ve come across several core truths to help people through the grieving process that I think we should all be aware of.
1. Just Be There
Consider Job 2:11-13. Job’s three friends “come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (verse 11, ESV), they mourn with him (verse 12, ESV), and they sit with him for seven days without saying a word (verse 13, ESV). There are three things we need to consider here.
First, they went to Job. They were present in his life while he was grieving. Be present for others, even if it’s just over the phone or video chat.
Second, they cried out and tore their clothes when they saw Job. Romans 12:15 reminds us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, (and) weep with those who weep” (ESV). This is exactly what Job’s friends did. His grief grieved them.
Third, Job’s friends were silent. PLEASE DON’T MISS THIS PART! If I could only give you one piece of advice this would be it: be silent. Job’s friends sat with him for seven days without saying anything; and if you continue reading the book of Job, you’ll realize it was when they opened their mouths that the trouble started.
2. Talk About the Deceased
Don’t wait for your friend to talk about the death of their loved one; be the first to bring it up. Typically, we are afraid to mention anything related to the deceased for fear that we will cause an emotional upset. But grieving “is a normal, predictable, expected, and healthy reaction to a loss” (Clinton & Hawkins, 2009, p. 133).
Many survivors feel as if no one wants to talk about the death of a loved one, and this is generally true. But the grieving person needs to discuss their grief and needs to feel free to grieve when necessary. Talking about the deceased opens the door for a conversation about the survivor’s grief and recovery. It gives him or her permission to grieve in your sight.
3. Help Your Friend Establish New Relationships
When someone close to you dies, all of your relationships change. Consider these two examples:
- Bob and Marge meet with another couple, Bill and Sue once a month for brunch to talk, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. When Marge suddenly passes away, meeting with Bill and Sue for brunch makes Bob uncomfortable. Bob needs to establish a new relationship with this couple. This may mean that they only see each other in passing, or perhaps instead of meeting at the diner for brunch, they all go golfing once a month instead. It may also mean that Bob and Bill establish a new relationship and have brunch together without Sue present.
- Emily and Melissa meet once a week to walk their dogs together in a nearby dog park. Emily’s dog becomes incredibly ill and passes away. Emily will likely feel uncomfortable continuing to walk in the dog park with Melissa, but may feel comfortable walking elsewhere, or meeting for lunch once a week without Melissa’s dog being present.
The relationship you have with your friend may need to change when they lose their loved one; be open to these changes and be flexible as your friend tries to sort out his or her emotional needs.
4. Give Your Friend Something to Do
In his book The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling, Dr H. Norman Wright gives this spectacular example:
Any kind of safe situation that provides the bereaved person with worthwhile roles to perform will benefit him or her…One pastor called upon a home in which the woman had just lost her husband…As he came in he said, “You know, I’ve had a tiring day. Would it be too much to ask you to make a cup of tea or coffee?”…When he was leaving she said, “Thank you for asking me to make you the coffee. I started to feel worthwhile and useful again.”
We have a tendency to baby those going through the grieving process. While it is a great kindness to help the bereaved with daily chores and such, it’s easy to make the bereaved person feel worthless and incapable. Instead of taking over the bereaved’s life, allow him or her to slowly begin conquering the little things like cooking or cleaning again. And remember, some grief-stricken persons need to do these mundane tasks to help them heal, so it is not prudent to command their lives and do everything for them. If you aren’t sure what to do, ask him or her what they need.
5. Stop the Cliches
Here are a few examples:
Everything’s going to be alright.
This will just take some time, and then everything will be back to normal.
You’ll get over this.
They’re in a better place now.
It’s for the best.
None of these statements are true. Everything isn’t going to be alright. Things will never go back to “normal”. The grieving person will never get over this. You don’t know that the deceased is in a better place, and you aren’t God, so you don’t know what’s best.
I’ll be the first to admit that these cliches start to roll off my tongue whenever I experience a person in grief. I’ve corrected myself more than once. That’s why I’m so adamant about not using these cliches. My reaction to these statements may seem harsh, but trust me when I say all of these statements do more harm than good. They take away the bereaved’s power to grieve, simplify complex emotions and ignore the hurt of everyone involved.
If you’re wondering what you should say instead, please refer back to my first point and say NOTHING. If you don’t know what to say or if you’re afraid you might accidentally say the wrong thing, don’t say anything. You don’t have to fill the awkward silence, I promise. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s better to remain silent than to say hurtful and judgemental things (again, consider the entire book of Job).
I’m so grateful for you…
I know that if you’re reading this, you want to love and help people during their times of grief, and I commend you for that. I’m so glad you’re taking this time to invest in others! Helping a hurting person is not an easy task, and it takes a huge emotional toll. I encourage you to take everything you’ve read today to heart, because I want to build a world where we’re all better helpers and caretakers. And last but not least, if you’re going to take care of others, don’t forget to take care of yourself!
With Love Always,
Clinton, T. E. and Hawkins, R. (2009). The quick-reference guide to biblical counseling: 40 topics, spiritual insights & easy-to-use action steps. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Wright, H. N. (2011). The complete guide to crisis & trauma counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House.