Most people don’t know what to say to the grieving.
Most grieving people don’t know how to talk about their grief. Mourning can lead to profound loneliness. It can be hard to know how to be a friend when you’re needed most.
I’m no grief expert, but I can share what I’ve learned along the road. I began recognizing my losses as they began to mount up during our years overseas. The lessons I learned were quickly put to the test a year and a half ago when an aggressive brain tumor took my father’s life.
My heart weighs heavily for the many people I meet who are grieving and struggling to find a way through the grief.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when walking alongside a friend through loss:
- Begin understanding your own losses. Maybe you haven’t lost someone to death, but have you lost a friend or family member to a severed relationship? To a different direction in life? To addiction? Have you lost a home due to an international move? Or lost a job? Those are losses to grieve and mourning brings compassion for other losses.
- Log time with your friend. Call them. Text them. Even when you do not know what to say. Just say, “I don’t know what to say.” It is honest and it may be enough for the moment. Keep calling and texting even when it seems they don’t want to be your friend because they don’t call you back. They’re grieving and it can be hard to take simple steps to maintain friendships during grief. Don’t take it personally and keep offering your friendship.
- Allow space for a range of emotions. Grieving isn’t just crying. It can be laughing over a memory or just doing something normal to remind yourself that life isn’t all about your loss. Life is not all sad. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes. Be a friend who is along for the ride, with all its ups and downs.
- Avoid explanations. Most of the time, we really don’t know what God’s purposes are in the timing of loss. When a friend of mine died right after graduation, a nurse rattled off a list of trite and untrue explanations. My anger grew to overflowing. The best thing to give at that moment was silence. Explanations make the speaker feel better because they have something to say. If you don’t know what to say, say that and sit. You may feel inept and weak but that is OK. Being present is a profound comfort.
- Educate yourself. Watch movies like P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life or Band of Brothers. Read memoirs written by the grieving. Do a word study in your Bible on mourning. Read slowly and repeatedly through Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died, before he was raised from the dead. Listen to Mary and Martha’s responses as though you were there. Notice Jesus’ responses.
- Pray for your friend and yourself. Most of the time when I pray for my grieving friends, I also pray that they will experience comfort from the Lord.
- Get help when it is needed. If your friend is coping with grief in self-destructive ways, don’t just stand by. If they are binge drinking, coping but not talking, displaying poor hygiene, taking drugs, hooking up with others to avoid pain, missing commitments or unable to sleep consistently, they need more help walking through their grief. Approach them about talking with a counselor and help them set up and keep the appointment.
Sometimes I feel there should be a class where I can learn how to be compassionate. Alas, I believe God grows a heart of compassion in us as we experience pain and come close to those in pain.
About the author: Alison Wilson serves with the Campus Ministry of Cru at Texas A&M University. She has spent a significant portion of her 18 years serving overseas. Ali and her husband David have three children. She writes more about grief, life overseas and ministry on her blog Eternal Wait of Glory.