For much of my life, I hid from grief. Watching other people experience such visceral pain touched too close to my own fears of irreversible loss and unpredictable tragedy. Then came the day I couldn’t avoid it. Last December, my family lost our great patriarch; and in March, my midwife looked at an ultrasound screen and said, “I can’t find a heartbeat.” My husband and I began the difficult process of saying goodbye to a baby we loved and would never hold.
Of the many lessons these months have taught me, they have changed the way I will support my grieving friends in the future.
For many of us, grief remains outside of the context of our well-known experiences. We understand the decorum for weddings, engagement parties, baby showers, birthdays and other celebrations. But perhaps we are less certain of how to respond when someone we know experiences a searing loss. We cannot remove their pain, but we can be present in a way that is practical, helpful and encouraging. Here are a few places to start…
Let them grieve how they need to grieve, not how you need to grieve. You may consider their response to be either overly emotional or lacking visible emotion. You may find their grief process to be awkward or strangely different from how you would handle the situation. And it doesn’t matter.
Communication styles, individual needs and diverse personalities will shape what grief looks like and our job is to simply support. No judgment. No critiques. Let it be what it is.
Offer specific help. In the face of something we cannot change, we want to help in tangible ways. We say things like, “please let me know what I can do,” and we mean it. But for the person suffering, the decision to keep moving may be all they can muster. Asking for specific help is beyond what feels feasible. Rather than offering general assistance, make it specific.
“May I bring you dinner tomorrow night? Is BBQ okay?”
“I’m free tomorrow morning from 9:00 to 12:00. Could I come watch the kids so you can shower, nap or get out of the house?”
“Can I help you around the house? I’m happy to run loads of laundry and put it away.”
Help that doesn’t require a conversation is equally encouraging. Leave a bag of groceries on their doorstep. Pick up an extra cup coffee and set it on their desk. Specific help eliminates one more thing to think about during a time when conversation and decisions are especially difficult.
Say something (something small). We want to say something that will make it better. The truth is that we can’t. But when we say something as simple and quick as, “I am so sorry for you loss,” we communicate that we are with them. We validate their grief and we tell them that we ache alongside of them.
Don’t stay silent out of fear of overwhelming them. Be present with just a few words. Send notes, leave voicemails, write on Facebook pages, and do all of it without the expectation of a response. Your presence is what’s needed, so if you never hear back, be okay with that. They may not be able to speak in return, but that is not a reflection of the value and impact of your words.
Don’t try to downplay it. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone grieve. Deal with it. It’s easy to want to help them “move on”, but that will happen when they are ready. And to be honest, a certain part of them may never move on and that’s okay.
We think we’re encouraging them by pointing out all of the things they have to be grateful for, but it doesn’t matter how much they value and appreciate the blessings in their life. None of it changes the pain of this loss. So let them grieve for as long as they need to.
Has it been decades since they lost someone and each year they mark the anniversary with new tears? How beautiful to have loved someone so deeply!
Words aimed at getting them to press beyond and “think positive” will likely have one strong effect. They will communicate that these feelings aren’t valid, or at least are not appropriate for sharing. As a result, our efforts to help may actually cause the one grieving to shut down and withdraw. Resist the urge to make it feel better and affirm their experience and the very real, difficult emotions that accompany it.
Give them space. Grief takes time to work through. Be present and available; and then allow them the space they need to process. When they’re ready to accept your invitations for conversation, they will let you know. In the meantime, simply remind them that you love them, you’re there for them, you’re praying for them and you are mourning with them.
They may never be able to say it, but your support will be one of the pillars holding them up in a season that is trying to tear them down.
Cara Joyner is a freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom living on the East Coast with her husband and two sons. After years of working in student ministry, she has come home to raise her boys and begin tackling grad school. She loves hanging out with college students, watching Parenthood and eating chocolate like it's one of the food groups. In addition to iBelieve, Cara is a contributing writer at RELEVANT and Today's Christian Woman. She writes about faith, marriage, motherhood and intentional living at www.carajoyner.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.