Timewise I’ve really only just begun this painful journey of deep grief, but I’ve already learned a number of significant lessons. I’m sharing some here both for future reference for myself, and in hopes that they might be helpful to others walking alongside grieving friends.
I dislike the ever popular lists of “15 things you should never say to___________” or “10 things you should always do for_________”. Those lists consistently strike me as being rooted in egocentrism and entitlement, and lacking grace. We who are grieving do not get a free pass to be egocentric, entitled or lacking in grace. We continue to answer to the command to be governed by love and grace, bearing with one another patiently and overlooking offenses.
My intention is not to present a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts regarding grieving people. I am simply sharing some of what I and other grieving friends have found both helpful and hurtful.
Please hear me cheering you on and encouraging you in your call to walk alongside your grieving friend. We have been so blessed by those who have faithfully come alongside us and we hope they will continue the journey with us. In the same way, your grieving friend will be deeply blessed by and appreciative of your faithful, Spirit-led companionship.
BEFORE YOU HELP:
Check your motives before attempting to help a grieving person.
If you are wanting to position yourself in the life of a grieving person in some way other than providing simple practical help, be certain to check your motives before you do. Go to the Lord and ask Him to help you examine your heart to be certain you are desiring to come alongside that broken person for right reasons.
It is possible to mistakenly believe you can somehow effectively save or rescue the grieving person. It feels good to help people, but we must ensure we are driven by selfless love for them in our helping, not a subconscious desire to be the one who saves them. There is only one Savior who can provide the help they desperately need in their grief, and His name is Jesus Christ. If you approach them with any hint of believing you are equipped or called to tether, save or rescue them, you will unintentionally do more harm than good.
Weep with those who weep; and be quick to listen and slow to speak.
(Romans 12:15, James 1:19)
- Weep with those who weep. Nothing has ministered to us more than those who genuinely hurt with us. Whether shared in person with tearful hugs, or through cards and messages, shared heartache is a precious gift. This continues to be powerfully true eight months later, and will remain true the remainder of our earthly days.
- Be quick to listen. Listen intently and be faithful to pray for whatever wounds or needs they share or you perceive.
- Be very slow to speak words other than those of love and compassion. Be extremely cautious about offering unsolicited counsel, or bombarding with scripture, articles and literature. Unless you are absolutely confident the Lord is prompting the sharing, choose instead to simply weep with those who weep.
- Attempting to relate dissimilar grief experiences is generally not helpful. It might seem like sharing your grief experience would help them by demonstrating you know and relate to their pain, and as a result can counsel or encourage them. But unless your experience is very similar, you actually do not know and can not relate. For example: the death of my grandmother and the death of a very dear friend, both of whom I deeply loved, along with my miscarriage were all three extremely painful grief experiences; but they relate in very few ways to the pain and grief associated with my child’s death.
- Avoid all non-death related parallels. Attempting to relate to their pain by sharing your experience of pain in the loss of a possession, animal, job, or home (or any other non-death related life transition) is unintentionally hurtful. It devalues the life of their loved one, and reflects a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the loss that person has experienced. They would gladly endure any non-death related experience you might share to have their loved one back.
- Be diligent in prayer. Ask God for discernment and wisdom as you interact. He is faithful and will guide you if you are surrendered to Him.
Grief is not a medical process to be completed.
Grief is not a series of steps that we work though, a list of boxes to be checked, or a process with a right and wrong way to be completed. Grief is the agony we experience in the absence of a precious loved one, and it will persist as long as we love that person. For more on this, read here…
- Pray for your grieving friends. Not just “Lord comfort them,” but genuine, deep, wrestling in prayer on their behalf. Pray scripture over them, the Psalms are a treasure trove for this.
- Understand there are no standards or timelines for grieving. Understand and constantly remind yourself of this.
- Don’t sanitize their grief. Grief is sanitized by viewing it as a medical process rather than the reality of the deep pain and loss they are suffering in the absence of their loved one. Read more here…
- Accept that they may always grieve. Their grief may change form or appearance, but depending upon their relationship to the deceased, they may always grieve. With near certainty, parents who have endured the death of a child will always grieve. The waves of anguish will vary in frequency, intensity and duration, but they will continue to come until they are reunited with their loved one.
Grief is emotionally and mentally exhausting.
The magnitude of the emotional and mental anguish of deep grief, the death of a child particularly, is incomprehensible outside of experiencing it. Trying to accept and process the reality of the unthinkable is all-consuming. All of the grieving person’s mental and emotional resources are occupied with processing the death of their loved one. For parents with children still at home, the intense emotional and mental demands are compounded as they must also strive to ensure the well being of their remaining children. Even after the initial shock has passed, the emotional self control required to push through the heartache of grief to accomplish activities of daily living is staggering. This is particularly true when those activities require interacting superficially in public or group settings. Normal events that previously required little emotional energy, like church attendance, can be completely exhausting in the midst of deep grief.
- Pray for your grieving friends. Ask God to strengthen them, and to lavishly grant them His grace and mercy to enable them to persevere emotionally and mentally. Ask them for specific needs to pray for, and then purposefully bathe those needs in prayer. Follow up with them for updates when appropriate.
- Be available, but allow space. Offer to be present in a way that they can decline your offer without fearing hurting your feelings. For me, short text messages were awesome, but phone calls were stressful (and still kind of are..). Ask if it is a good time to visit rather than showing up at their home unannounced.
- Don’t add to their burdens. Be cautious about sharing non-urgent or unnecessary problems or burdens with your deeply grieving friend. If they love you they will feel responsibility to shoulder your burden as well, further depleting and compromising them emotionally.
Grief is Spiritually exhausting.
Spiritual warfare, especially when wounded, is exhausting. I believe our adversary who lives to steal, kill and destroy, fixes his focus and intensifies his attacks on those who are wounded. In the midst of this warfare we know that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, we know that He will neither abandon nor forsake them. Even in their deepest grief He is actively and faithfully ministering to, teaching and instructing the brokenhearted in His time and His way.
- Pray for your grieving friends. Pray that they will be able to fix their focus on Christ and that their ears will be attentive to His voice. Pray that He will speak to them through His Word, and that the truth they glean will echo in their minds and hearts as an anchor for their souls.
- Don’t assume you know what they need spiritually. Remember the lesson and rebuke of Job’s friends in the book of Job. Be extremely cautious about presuming what your grieving friend needs spiritually. Unless you are absolutely confident the Lord is prompting the sharing of something, choose instead to simply weep with those who weep.
- Don’t panic if they wrestle with God and His truths. In the midst of their distress everything they know and believe is in The Refiner’s flames. Their wrestling will result in the stripping away of falsehoods and the strengthening of Truth in their lives. Faithfully pray for them to persevere in their wrestling until Truth prevails. If they do, they will emerge refined and fortified for their good and His glory.
- If you are praying for them, tell them. A simple text message is fine, “I’m praying for you right now.” But only tell them that if you are really interceding for them in legitimate purposeful prayer. They will never tire of hearing it. Never.
Grief is physically exhausting.
Words can not adequately describe the bone-aching, crippling physical fatigue of deep grief. The cumulative energy exerted emotionally, mentally and spiritually to process the catastrophic impact of death renders you completely and utterly physically exhausted. In addition, sleep disturbances are common while grieving, further compounding that already debilitating exhaustion.
- Pray for your grieving friends. Pray for them to be able to sleep. Night time is extremely hard for many who grieve, pray for the Lord to guard their thoughts through the night watches and shield them from the attacks of the enemy. Pray for the Lord to miraculously sustain them through the exhaustion to do the things that have to be done. Then pray that the Lord will give them discernment to recognize what has to be done and to let go of that which does not.
- Deliver household necessities and grocery items. Toilet paper, paper towels, disposable cups, plates, utensils, garbage bags, and grocery staples are always helpful. Before delivering, text them to ask if it’s okay to leave the items on the porch. If they are having a particularly hard time at that moment this releases them from the additional emotional strain of visiting, but if they want to visit it gives them time to prepare.
- Offer specific practical help. “I would like to bring a meal one night this week, may I?” “I would like to cut your grass this weekend, may I?” “I would like to help you clean this week, which rooms may I clean for you?” A grieving friend shared that a group of her friends paid for house cleaning service for a period of time, also a great idea.
- Give gift cards for meals. Gift cards for meals are a fantastic way to help. It will both challenge and enable them to get out of the house, and at the same time meets a very real need.
- Be patient and understanding. If you’ve asked or offered to get together with them, recognize that they may be too exhausted to do something right now, but that won’t always be the case. Try again later.
Grief impairs memory, focus, concentration and comprehension.
The overwhelming nature of deep grief obliterates mental acuity. Short term memory and the ability to focus and concentrate become scarce resources. Since they struggle to focus on one thing, let alone concentrate on it for any length of time, comprehension fails as well. I can testify to the accuracy of this well documented fact. I have to set multiple reminders for every single event, and post-it notes are indispensable. I can’t remember who told me what, or who I told what. It seems to be improving slightly after almost eight months, but my mental acuity is nowhere near where it was before Sarah left.
- Pray for your grieving friends. There is so much to be decided and completed in the days immediately following the death of their loved one that the strain on mental acuity is particularly frustrating and distressing. Pray for them to be able to remember, focus and comprehend to accomplish all that has to be done. Pray for these issues to stabilize in the weeks and months that follow.
- Buy them Post-it notes. That’s partially tongue in cheek, but if you happen to be delivering paper goods, by all means throw in some post-it notes.
- Invite them to get together. They are squarely focused on surviving each day, it is unlikely they will have the foresight or thought to invite you. However, if you invite them they may well come, and even if they are not up to it they will appreciate being reached out to.
- If they fail to acknowledge your kind gesture, know that it does not indicate lack of appreciation. They most likely have just forgotten to respond, or are so overwhelmed with their grief that they simply can not respond yet. Cards, letters and kind gestures are always deeply appreciated, and increasingly so when they arrive after weeks, months and years have passed.
- Don’t take it personally if they don’t respond to texts or calls. If they fail to respond to your text, call, offer to get together or other kind gesture, don’t take it personally. It most likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their grief. They may be too overwhelmed or exhausted, or they may have simply overlooked the message or forgotten to reply. Don’t take it personally and give up or pull away from them, just try again later.
- Don’t expect them to remember your offers. If you mention in passing that you would like to get together with them, they probably will not remember or think to contact you to make it happen. Don’t assume that means they don’t want to spend time with you, assume they are overwhelmed or forgot.
Grief is awkward.
Grief is so awkward. If you feel awkward around your grieving friend, you are not alone. Many people voice gripping fear about saying or doing “the wrong thing.”
On the flip side, it is incredibly awkward for your grieving friend as well. They have no idea how to navigate this new path and role they didn’t choose. In an instant every relationship they have was altered, and in many ways they have to relearn each one. They are completely overwhelmed.
- Recognize greetings can be awkward. “How are you?” is a really awkward one. If you can remember to greet them in a different way, it would probably be appreciated, perhaps greeting instead with, “It’s good to see you.” Don’t panic if you forget, though. Most grieving people will learn to view “How are you?” as a generic greeting, and will justify answering generically with something like “okay” or “fine.”
- Acknowledge the awkwardness. If you are extremely concerned about saying or doing something to hurt them, just acknowledge it. Say something like, “I don’t know what to say, I am fearful of saying something that might hurt you, but I want you to know I love you.” [only say that if you actually do love them…]
- Don’t pretend like nothing has happened. Awkwardness is intensified by pretending like nothing has happened, especially if you’re seeing each other for the first time since the death or funeral. Just a short acknowledgment is often all that is necessary to disarm the awkward. Something as simple as “I’m really sorry for your loss” will usually work.
- If it appears they are fine, it doesn’t mean they are “over it.” Particularly in the weeks and months following the death, appearing fine does not reflect being fine. It is just an indicator that they are perfecting the tedious skill of restraining their grief. Their pain and heartache is always just beneath the surface. You don’t have to worry about hurting them by accidentally reminding them of their loss, it is impossible for them to forget.
- Participate in conversation about the person who has died. Sometimes conversation will naturally drift to the person who has died, don’t panic if it does. If your grieving friend is steering the conversation there and engaging in it, that means it is helpful to them to talk about their loved one, engage with them.
- Be attentive to their social cues. If they appear to be trying to end a conversation with you or anyone else, help them gracefully end it. This can be particularly helpful in a group setting, I was rescued on more than one occasion. The need to end the conversation is not a negative reflection on you or the person they are talking to, it’s just recognition that they may have reached their emotional limit.
- It’s never too late to reach out to them. If you’ve let the awkwardness of grief prevent you from reaching out to them, its not too late. Apologize to them for being absent, if you think that is appropriate or needed, and proceed to reach out to them however you feel led. I can testify eight months later I would very graciously welcome it, so I believe others would as well.
Your friend may grieve for the remainder of their earthly life.
I can’t emphasize enough that your friend may continue to grieve for the remainder of their earthly life. If it is their child who has departed, they will. Their hearts won’t just ache on the “special days,” anniversaries and holidays, but at completely random times as well. When an unexpected thought or memory washes over them, when they see someone interacting as they used to with their loved one, when a certain song is sung at church, upon hearing a certain phrase, smells, sights, places, on and on the list of triggers goes. Through God’s grace, over time they will become much more adept at reeling it in and restraining it. But because the pain persists they will always be touched and encouraged by you acknowledging it.
- Persevere in praying for your grieving friends. There is no greater gift that you can give them. They are most likely weary and longing for Home, continue to pray for His soothing of their aching hearts. Pray for God’s sustaining grace to richly abide in them to enable them to live fruitfully for Him until He calls them Home.
- Remember the “special days,” anniversaries and holidays. Telling them you are praying for them at these times is a tremendous blessing.
- Acknowledge their ongoing pain. If you have been thinking about or praying for them and their pain, telling them touches their hearts. As time goes on very few will continue to recognize or acknowledge their pain to them, you doing so ministers to them.
- Continue to send cards, notes and messages as you feel led. They will never tire of hearing you are thinking about or praying for them, and as time goes on those ongoing reminders become more and more precious.
Grant grace, grace and more grace.
Their world has just fallen apart. They are overwhelmed and emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically exhausted. Their grief and exhaustion have robbed them of much of their mental acuity. That is in no way an excuse for them to act in an un-Christlike manner, but it is an extremely strong reason to lavishly grant them grace.
Grief will transform your friend.
In cases of deep grief, such as the death of a child, your friend will no longer be who they were before the death of their loved one. They have been radically transformed by the deep wounds and pain they bear. If they choose to cling to Christ, through the grace of God sustaining and refining them they will emerge transformed with greater strengths and gifts than ever before.
If you humbly and prayerfully follow the Spirit’s leading in gently and faithfully walking alongside your friend, you will have the privilege of witnessing the transforming power of God’s grace that redeems all things for His glory and our good. He will knit your hearts together and you will both be blessed in the process.
If you have been absent for a prolonged part of their journey it will be extremely difficult to pick up exactly where you left off. You are probably more or less the same person, but they are not. They are acutely aware of the fact that they are no longer who they were, and that you have missed vital parts of that transformation. It’s never too late to reach out to reconnect, but interact with them in a way that allows you to glean insight into who they are now, to get to know the person they have become.
“Let love be genuine.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Romans 12:9-15 [ESV]