I don't know if I would consider myself an expert on loss and grieving, but I've lost and grieved quite a bit. When I was in Junior High, my family had to say good-bye to a close family friend, my cousin, my grandma, and our pet dog (who was not on the same level as the humans we lost, but it still hurt). A few years later, my brother tragically died at the age of 21, and more recently, my parents passed away within three months of each other. Feeling support in times of grief is essential to weathering the trauma of loss, but some support is not as helpful as others. Based on my experiences, when people don't know what to say, they tend to say too much. Words aren't always the most helpful when someone is grieving. I wanted to offer a hand guide for those who want to help but don't know what to do when tragedy occurs in a friend's life. Keep in mind everyone grieves differently so their needs will vary, but here's some advice (take it or leave it) from someone who's been there...
- Avoid Christian cliché's. For some, statements like "You'll see him again in heaven someday," or "She's in a better place," don't bring comfort. It may be very true, but in their very emotional state, they may not want their loved one in heaven at that moment. They want them here and that's all their broken heart desires. Remember, even good solid Christians can become irrational when they're grieving, and that's allowed. These kinds of phrases can possibly cause confusion for the person. They may feel they're a bad person because they want their loved one here on earth and not in heaven, or that they don't trust God.
- Don't recommend songs. Certain songs may have brought you comfort in your trying times, but it doesn't necessarily mean it will to your friend. More than likely, a song isn't going to take care of the raw emotions someone's feeling. If they find a song on their own that comforts them, that's one thing, but to suggest one or quote one implies, "This song will make you feel better," but it might not.
- Don't say, "I know how you feel, I lost my..." and then proceed to tell your experiences. It's not about you in that moment. I know hearts can be in the right place and a common ground is trying to be found, but very often, for the one grieving, your experience isn't going to compare with their present loss. When my brother died, someone tried to tell me they understood how I felt because they lost an uncle. It did not equate in my mind. I heard a priest say at a funeral to the devastated parents of the deceased that he knew how they felt because he had lost a nephew. Even if the details of your loss are similar to your grieving friend's, it may not feel the same to them. Save your experiences for later when they are ready to dialogue.
- "If you need anything, just call." Again, a very heartfelt offer, but not very practical for someone who's in mourning to follow through on. They're not going to call. Instead, if you see a need, meet the need. Organize a schedule for dinners to be taken over for the next couple of weeks. Arrange to pick up their kids from school. Clean the house. Do the shopping. There will be needs as life continues to move around them so anticipate them and then meet them. I'll never forget our pastor coming in our house the day my brother died with bags of groceries for us. That was very helpful and made a lasting impression.
- If you have to say anything, say "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you," (again being careful of Christian-ese and sensitive if they don't believe in prayer). Better than words is being there for them if you're a close enough friend. Cry with them (which is huge). Hold them if they want to be held. Laugh if they want to laugh. Talk about the departed if they want to. For some, it may be too painful to mention their loved one by name, but others may want to reminisce about the departed. Follow their lead.
As I mentioned, everyone grieves differently, so my advice isn't carte blanche, but I believe it will help you as you desire to support your friends and family who are hurting.