“Sometimes when one of my friends is really, really sad, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I should say something, or leave them alone.”
(My daughter, aged nine)
Have you ever been in that awkward position where you unexpectedly bump into someone that you know has recently suffered a terrible tragedy and you panic, thinking, “What the heck do I say!?” Or have you been walking alongside someone who is in a dark tunnel of pain and you don’t know how best to help? And you wonder if you should walk alongside, or keep your distance or…… Have you ever “put your foot in it” and wished you could remove it? Have you ever second-guessed yourself about something you said or didn’t say, about something you did or didn’t do, and wished desperately that you could rewrite that moment in time?
I think we’ve all been there. I know I have. Actually, I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and I write this post from those two perspectives: my own attempts to give help to others (when a friend’s husband suicided on the day of her daughter’s fifth birthday, when my brother-in-law died unexpectedly at the young age of forty-one, leaving behind a wife and three young girls, when a good friend died in Africa aged twenty-seven) and my experiences of having the whole gamut of “help” given to me (when my baby died and when my father died), ranging from that which was super helpful, right through to the disastrous and even offensive. Yep, truly!
So here goes. Here are some of my ideas about how best to help someone who is grieving.
- Give Comfort Even When You Feel Uncomfortable. Don’t be so focussed on how awkward you feel that the grieving person ends up comforting YOU! We often had people say “I don’t know what to say….” and then just kind of … stand there …. looking awkward and uncomfortable and saying … nothing. I often ended up being the one to offer comfort, reassuring them that many others felt the same way as them. Which is backwards! If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m so sorry” and a hug (if appropriate) is often enough. Your discomfort is minimal in comparison to what the hurting person is experiencing. Use your discomfort as a catalyst for empathy.
- The “Soap Opera” Slip-Up: Don’t add more drama to their drama, more story to their story. Speculating and assuming based on your limited understanding of the other person’s situation will not help them at all. Let’s face it, humans love drama! We love movies, stories, news reports, gossip…. you name it. If there’s a story to be told, we want to hear it. Even my youngest child dreams of following an emergency vehicle with its sirens blaring, to see where they’re going and what’s happening. (Although after once being right next to a police car that suddenly careened off in hot pursuit, with one officer jumping out of the car and pursuing someone on foot, she has decided that she doesn’t want to follow a police car thank you very much! And she also feels sad when she sees an ambulance. So I guess that leaves fire engines!) The truth is, we like to find out the juicy details about what happened. I’m sure psychologists have a name for this, but my purpose here is simply to say: resist the urge. It is not nice for a hurting person to feel that someone is more interested in getting information about what happened, than they are in finding out how they are and what they need.
- Beware the “Saviour Syndrome”. Grieving people don’t need a hero to fly in and rescue them, they need people who will love them, and quietly serve and support in the background. Swooping in as the saviour-come-hero may stroke your own ego, but will be unhelpful and perhaps even detrimental to the grieving person.
- Beattitudes, not platitudes. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And that’s what grieving people need: comfort. Not simplistic “solutions” or “bandaids” or platitudes. Here are some that were offered to us: “God must have wanted your baby more than you did” (Really??), “Gosh, you’re lucky he didn’t live for a few months, imagine how hard THAT would be” (What I would have given for a few months of memories), “Oh well, at least you can have another baby” (I didn’t want another baby, I wanted this one!), “Wow, it’s been 6 weeks, you must be feeling better” (Really? Says who?), “You’re suicidal? Here, let me tell you about my new business venture….” (That really happened to us), “I know just how you feel” (No, you don’t), “God works all things together for good” (Said at the funeral – too soon!), “When my grandma died…..” (Losing a grandma is sad but normal, losing a baby is unimaginable and out of “chronological order”), “Oh well, at least he’s in heaven” (But I wanted him with me! – although heaven did later become a very real comfort). There were more platitudes like this from well meaning people, but you get the idea!
- Keeping Up Appearances. One of the comments that was often directed to me after our baby died was, “You’re so strong” which sounds lovely, but in fact served to set up an expectation that I should remain strong because it was obviously admirable. I also felt a bit invisible, that people weren’t really seeing me, that they were just seeing my public face. It increased my sense of isolation; the sense that my private tears were shed alone and people preferred the image of “togetherness” that they often saw in me. Telling people to “stay positive” has a similar effect. Expectations of strength and positivity at a time when weakness and sadness are the norm do not help the hurting person. Validation of HOWEVER they are feeling is imperative. Feelings of overwhelming sadness, negativity, despair, devastation and anger are totally, absolutely and completely OKAY. They may not be pleasant, but they are normal, if that is what the grieving person is experiencing at any moment. There is a season for everything, and this season will pass. But not yet.
- Comparisons. If you had a similar experience to their loss, or know someone who did, it is almost never helpful to share the lengthy details of the story, although a brief mention of it might help build a bridge of connection. And seeking to compare their situation to another one is just… irrelevant. The suffering that a person is going through is the worst possible thing for them right at that time, and their suffering will be unique to them. It is highly unlikely that they will appreciate hearing any kind of comparisons. When my brother-in-law died last year, a huge natural disaster occurred at the same time. Thousands of people died and you know what? My sister-in-law had absolutely zero interest in what was going on. To her, the worst possible thing was the thing that was happening to her. I have literally seen people’s eyes go glassy whilst trying to feign interest in the monologue of one who has apparently “been there”. Use your experience to equip you with empathy.
- One of a Kind. Everyone grieves differently. Some people like to talk about what happened and how they’re feeling. Others seek to avoid the issue and “get on with life” as best they can. Some process it verbally, and other process it internally. When I told my fifteen year old son tonight about this post I was writing, he said “Everyone is different, Mum. I think people just need to ask the person what they want. Ask them if they would like to talk about it, or would they prefer not to. Would they like to do something to help them get their mind off it, or would they like to talk it through?” Out of the mouths of babes….
- Men Cry Too. They really do. A lot of the time they’ll try to be “strong” though, either for their wives, or because they subconsciously think society expects it. Don’t expect it of them! They often need to return to work and so they attempt to push their grief aside to help them cope with life’s demands, but suppressed grief often turns very ugly in the long term. Men grieve deeply, but differently, to women, and they have different needs, and different ways of expressing it, so they often need a different type of support. They often need physical outlets for their pain, which is usually honoured in other societies better than our own, through the man digging the grave, building the coffin, etc. And remember, even with a neonatal death, the father is grieving too, not just the mother. Countless number of people would ask my husband how I was going, and never think to ask him how he was! Stay tuned for my husband’s guest post on this topic!
- Let Kids Be Kids. Diane McKissock’s book “The Grief of our Children” is a very helpful read on this topic. And thank goodness there are now some great children’s grief centres that use play therapy and other kid-friendly methods of helping children to explore and cope with their grief. In a nutshell, children know how to grieve, and it is best to allow them to grieve in the way that is right for them. One of my nieces, who is five, likes to dress in her Dad’s clothes (he died last year) and talks openly about him and her sadness, whereas her sister is more reserved and expresses her grief in more subtle ways such as nighttime wakefulness, and a need to have her mother with her at that time. Grieving children need permission to process it their way, opportunities to talk and remember if and when they want to, physical outlets, art and play opportunities, and mostly, love. If you have children of your own, don’t be afraid to talk with them about what has happened.
- Don’t Stay Away. Grieving people often feel incredibly lonely and will probably appreciate a (brief) visit. Sometimes they prefer solitude, and it is important to respect that too, but don’t assume they would prefer it. If you want to call, call. If you want to visit, visit! But ALWAYS ask if it’s a good time and make it easy for them to say no if not (be careful of the “It’s fine” response and don’t stay too long – see below). Don’t assume they’ll have so many visitors that you’ll just get in the way. And remember, the influx of visitors will subside before their pain does. It’s often weeks later when they need a phone call, a little note in the letterbox, or a cup of tea with a friend.
- Don’t Stay Too Long. If you’re visiting, keep it brief. Very brief. Take something to give them, to make it easy for them to simply say, “Thanks…. OK, bye then”. If you turn up empty handed, it is obvious you came just to visit, and the grieving person may feel pressured to invite you inside. Don’t assume they want you to enter their home. It is their sanctuary, and sometimes they do not want visitors in it. Simply offer your “gift” (see below) and a few words, give them a hug if they want it, and then begin to leave. If they want you to stay, they will say so. If not, they will be relieved to have an easy way to avoid unwanted company at that time. When our baby died, we were SO exhausted, and had a steady stream of visitors. Some people did not seem to realise when they had overstayed their welcome and we needed rest. We even had one visitor arrive after 10pm on the day our baby died! He stayed and stayed until my husband eventually asked him to go home which is something he shouldn’t have had to do. This is really important! Some people want to be in the home of the grieving, to feel part of the circle, because it makes them feel important and included, but this is not helpful; it’s an invasion of privacy. Please, please, please be respectful of the hurting person’s need for very short visits or phone calls unless they invite you to stay longer.
- Listen. When you visit, don’t be afraid of silence. There is no need to fill every second with chit chat. Give them time to find their voice, for it is often in those quiet moments that the most profound sharing will occur. Sometimes a hug is enough. Sometimes sitting in silence without touching is better. Tune in; you will work it out.
- The elephant in the room. Don’t be afraid to speak about the one who has died. To remember them. To speak of shared memories. But again, be very sensitive to whether this is wanted or not. It usually is.
- Toilet Paper. Flowers are lovely and all, but there is nothing quite as awesome as extra rolls of toilet paper when a grieving family is inundated with many visitors! Other things you could take when you visit (rather than going empty handed as mentioned above) include: tea, coffee, milk, bread, fruit and other snacks, non-perishable grocery items, a simple gift for any children (such as colouring books or a cuddly toy), a pre-cooked meal (in a disposable container) that can be eaten now or frozen for later, a loan of an extra freezer to store meals in, a journal to write in, a candle to light in memory of their loved one, a thoughtful poem or quote, a CD of beautiful music…. But really? Don’t forget the toilet paper. And tissues.
- But I Want to DO Something! It is said that true “religion” is caring for widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27), not just offering the well-meaning words, “Go in peace, be warm and filled” without actually helping to provide for some of their needs (James 2:16)! The catch cry of “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” helps the helper think they’ve helped, but in reality isn’t all that helpful. A grief-stricken person usually does not have the mental capacity to be able to think of something you can do. And they are also unlikely to think of something later and remember to ring you. Think and pray about something you CAN do, and offer to do that specific thing, but with a sensitive awareness of whether or not it is appreciated or wanted. Do not railroad the grieving person, giving help where it is not wanted. One thing that often works well is to have someone accompany the grieving person to any appointments while a team of people clean the house, mow the grass etc. Other possibilities for offers of practical help might include: ringing to see if they need anything when you’re at the shops, setting up a notebook to record the various acts of kindness from different people, listening to the answering machine or intercepting calls and writing down messages, offering to make some of the hard phone calls, offering to do simple errands, offering to collect or drop off children or have them over for a play, offering to notify the newspaper, helping with housework, etc. I’m sure you could think of other things! This is God’s love in action.
- Data Base. It can be really helpful to set up a data base listing people who are willing to help as it can enable the coordination of a support network for the early weeks. Later, the list can be given to the grieving person so they know who they can call when they need a particular thing. Helpful additions can include people to help with housework, child minding, lawn mowing and other maintenance, car repairs, grocery runs, financial or legal advice, online and in-real-life support groups, telephone support organisations, etc.
- The Buffer Zone. Help them to create a buffer zone around themselves. If they don’t have an answering machine, get them one, and encourage them to “let the machine get it”. When my brother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly last year, I was thankfully able to intercept a phone call just before midnight from one of my sister-in-law’s (not close) friends, who had firstly phoned WAY too late, and secondly talked for way too long. I was thankfully able to be my s-i-l’s answering machine and protect her from a call she didn’t want to receive. Real digital answering machines around the clock are an even better idea! They don’t get as tired or impatient! The volume of calls received can be immense, and the grieving person can feel obligated to return them, so if you leave a message, tell them you do not expect a call back. Make them a sign to hang on their door or front gate that says something like, “Thanks for your visit. I’m currently resting or needing some alone time. Please leave a message or come back another time.” Have a pad of paper or a whiteboard for people to write a note on. The Buffer Zone means two things: the grieving person has an easy way to get solitude when they need it. Friends and family will know that if the sign is not up, or the machine is off, it is probably okay to call or visit. It is still wise to always check if it’s a “good time” though, because sometimes they may have forgotten to hang the sign!
- The Long Haul. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and grief isn’t over in a day. As time goes on, and their support dwindles, make sure you remember them, and keep being supportive. Diarise the date of death, birthdays and anniversaries, so you can remember in the years to come. Perhaps put your hurting friend in your diary as a regular recurrence, to remind you to call or check on them. Remember to invite them over, and invite them to join in on social activities, particularly if it was the loss of a spouse. Invite yourself over for movie nights, so they have company in the evenings. There are so many ways to remember, include, and love our hurting friends. “Lest we forget.”
- Ask, Don’t Assume. Remember this, if nothing else. Don’t assume anything, whether it be about what they need, or what will help. Simply ask! “I was thinking of popping in, would you like that, or would you prefer another time?” or “Would you like to talk about it?” or “Would you like me to take your kids to the park while you go to the grave, or would you prefer to take them with you?” or “How are you going for meals? I have one here I could drop around but if your freezer is full, I can drop it in another day. Is there a particular day that would be most helpful?” It takes all the guesswork out, and enables you to care with mindfulness and respect. And the bonus is, it’s actually easier!
- Love. When all is said and done, it’s really all about love. Heartfelt, practical love. Let love guide you.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7