Helping Each Other Grieve

Grief is isolating. While the rest of the world seems to be celebrating, tragedies even years and decades old resurface like fresh slices to the heart. If the grieving could pretend throughout the year that a loved one was merely on a trip or still in her old apartment across town, and not in fact passed from this earth, the missing laugh at the Christmas table will bring the reality home. Knowing how to help someone in this struggle can also feel debilitating.

Everyone is in need of consolation. Everyone drags behind them the silent and invisible bags of past failures, loved ones lost, and the deep secrets of insecurity, fear, and anxiety. Often times when approaching the grieving we attempt to talk them back to freedom, as if our words can blanket the despair. Troy Organ once wrote that “grief is a helplessness that does not cry for help. One cries and hopes that help will come unbidden.” Hardy Clemons, in Saying Hello to Your Life After Grief, offers a few suggestions for relating in a helpful manner to those who have recently experienced a major loss.

Be there! Offer the gift of your presence. Maya Angelou said it well:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone.
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

People say, “I want to go, but I don’t know what to say.” My response to that is: Good. That’s better! Say nothing. Just go. If you must speak, say “I’m sorry. I care.” Nothing else. Your presence will say everything that needs to be said.

Most people say too much to grieving people anyway. People in grief are in such shock that they hear or remember basically nothing anybody says. Just go. If for some reason you cannot go, phone or write. Say “I’m sorry, I care, I love you. I’m here to help if I may.” Remember that it is not necessary or even important to say anything. Indeed, it is crucial not to say too much at such a time. But be sensitive as well, and do not force your company on anyone.

Let the person in need of comfort talk. Let her talk about people, events, and feelings connected with the loss. One of the major tasks of grief is for the loss to become real. Going, being quiet, and listening will aid this process.

Listen particularly for feelings. Accept these feelings without judgment. Feelings are not moral or immoral, good or bad—they’re just feelings! I have been there many times as a pastor and have seen the scenario as people come to give the gift of their presence. I have heard the typical story:

John has not been feeling well lately, but when he came in tonight he said he was feeling better. He ate such a good supper. His appetite seemed to be back. After supper he went in to listen to the news. I was puttering around the kitchen, finishing things. When I went in to join him, he seemed to be asleep in his chair. I tried not to disturb him, but then he seemed not to be moving at all. I spoke to him, then went over and touched him, and…he was gone!

Then the phone or the doorbell rings, and she tells the story all over again: “John hasn’t been feeling well lately. But tonight he came in and had such a good supper. Then he went in to hear the news.…” As caring people visit and call, she tells one of the most important stories of her life over and over again. Each time she repeats the story, the reality she is loathe to face sinks into her being a bit more. People who go and care and be a good enough friend to listen are crucially important.

Ask Questions
Ask brief, tactful questions. Ask about feelings, events, and people: “Do you want to talk about what happened?” “Would you be willing to tell me about your daughter?” “What is it like for you to be divorced?”

Troy Organ observed, “Friends poured in all afternoon. There were never less than a dozen people with me during the rest of the day. As each arrived, there was a brief expression of sorrow. Then conversation turned to the weather, politics, campus gossip. I wanted to talk about Lorena, but everyone else seemed to find this an embarrassing topic.”

Don’t Preach
Please don’t interpret, explain, or offer premature hope! Troy Organ said, “It’s cruel to say grief will end.” Don’t argue with a person’s feelings. The kindest, most helpful thing you can possibly do is simply to listen.

Appropriate touch—a hand on a shoulder, for example—offers a compassionate source of comfort. Don’t be afraid to draw near to the grieving person.

Offer Specific Help
Don’t say, “Call me if I can do anything.” Instead, ask, “Could I pick anyone up at the airport for you?” “May I house some of the people coming from out of town?” “May I cut your lawn?” “May I pick you up for worship next Sunday?”

One of my parishioners said, “The best offer of help I had was from the person who said, ‘Maybe you are ready to return to worship but not ready to face a big crowd of people. Could I pick you up and get you there just as the service begins? Then we’ll leave just as worship ends.’ Troy Organ said the person who was the most help to him when his wife took her own life was the woman who said, “You are to be my guest every Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. for supper. I have already set aside a napkin ring for you.”

People want to talk about their losses. They want us to listen to what they feel. We give them a priceless gift when we patiently listen to whatever they want to say. We neither judge nor argue. We forego telling “war stories” about our own losses and victories. We avoid telling people what to feel or how to face a loss. We don’t explore why the tragedy happened. We listen.

My dear friends and fellow church members lost their teenage daughter and sister, Blair, in a tragic accident. In facing and seeking to work through their grief, they circulated an anonymous poem that invited people to speak with them about their darling Blair:

The time of concern is over.
No longer am I asked how my wife is doing.
Too seldom is the name of our daughter
mentioned to me.
A curtain descends. The moment has passed.
A life slips from frequent recall.
There are exceptions: close and compassionate friends,
Sensitive and loving family, Blair’s closest pals.
For most, the drama is over.
The spotlight is off. Applause is silent.
But for me the play will never end.
The effects on me are timeless.
Say Blair to me.
On the stage of my life she will always be a rising star!
Do not tiptoe around the most consuming event of my life.
Love does not die.
Her name is written on my life
Say Blair to me and say Blair again and again.
It hurts to bury her memory in silence—and I will not….
So long as we are here, please say Blair to us.

This post originally appeared in Saying Hello to Your Life After Grief by Hardy Clemons.

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  1. Jennifer Jones says

    As someone on the “need” side of this post, I can tell you that I hope and pray daily someone will say, “I know you are grieving. I’m here to listen.” It loses meaning if I have to ask. If someone would only take the time, it would be so healing.