Coming along side a grieving friend immediately after the death of someone they love is probably one of the most intentional acts of selfless caring we can do. But how many of us are hesitant and uncertain about what to do or say. Here are a few ideas that my grieving friends have taught me.
Listening is really important. For those who have witnessed the death of a loved one, they need to repeatedly talk about the details of the dying process, and their feelings about it. Knowing this need of the grieving, may help us as we find ourselves listening to details of a the death that we might be unprepared for. Some stories are of a painful death-bed struggle that extends over time; others may die quickly and quietly. Other death stories can include details of an accident, violence, neglect, or how someone took their own life. As a listener, I think it is helpful to offer acceptance and understanding even when the story might generate uncomfortable feelings for us. (Being a comforter is never about us.) The less we say, the better. The less we react, the better. Just be the listener that supports and acknowledges the story without judgement or dismay.
A Safe Listener
With complicated death stories such as suicide, your friend might find it very difficult to talk unless they know you are completely emotionally and spiritually safe for them to share with. These kinds of trusted listeners are discerning, discrete, caring, gentle, and wise. They know that this conversation needs to be kept in confidence and held safe from others who may not handle the information with care and protection. Again, we must guard our reactions, so it never turns the attention to us. These moments of story telling are for the benefit of the grieving. When we listen, we give them space to begin their journey towards healing.
The ancient book of Proverbs offers this wisdom:
“The one who knows much says little; an understanding person remains calm.”
The Message, Prov. 17:27
Repeating the Story until Healing Begins
An important thing to remember is that nearly all the bereaved need to repeat their story of the death details many times over. Yet after they have processed these memories of their grief experience, they will move past it, and you will have been a valuable part of helping them through this earliest of grieving experiences.
So, what to do when you aren’t sure if the grieving friend has already processed their memories? Simply asking, “Have you talked to anyone yet about the day your husband died?” If they say “yes,” you could give them the opportunity to continue the conversation by offering, “Do you want to talk about it anymore?” Then just listen. If they answer, “No” you might respond by saying, “When you feel ready, I am here for you and will be honored to listen to your experience.” If you don’t feel you would do well listening to the details of a death story, then it might be best to offer support in other ways. To do so, take a look at more blogs for “Conversations for the Comforter.”
I know you don’t mean to avoid the hurting coworker. You didn’t intent to exclude the grieving mother in the group. The bereaved widower is not left out intentionally. It just happens. At the same time, you want to know that when you do step closer to someone in pain, that you want to do the right thing. The skills most needed for compassionate comfort are to be authentic ~ to be real and honest and to remember to ask questions for clarification and permission.
Simply Ask with Authenticity
No one knows what their grieving friend is really thinking and feeling, so why not ask? When you do, be genuine and take the time to deeply hear what they tell you. It might go like this:
“Hey Tom, I have no idea what it feels like for you right now. The thing is, I want to know and understand. Could you help me and let me know what your grief feels like today?”
Your grieving friend could answer in a variety of ways:
“Thanks for asking, I really don’t want to talk right now.”
“Are you sure you have the time?”
“I can’t find the words. It is too painful and confusing, but I can tell you this . . .”
True to Your Offer
Whatever reply they offer, accept it. Remind them that you will be available to listen when they are ready talk, and then be true to that assurance. A few days might pass or a couple of weeks. You could open the conversation by reminding your friend that he didn’t want to talk then, but you were wondering if he felt like it today. This gentle reminder, that is initiated by you, assures him you meant it when you told him that you would be here for him.
When your grieving friend does open up and begins to talk, listen without interruption. Give him your eyes. Listen with your heart. Give him your full attention so that you are NOT even thinking about how you should respond to his thoughts or story. (That’s right, you just read what I wrote. If you are thinking about your response, then you are not really listening.) This conversation is not about you. It is all about him. Be okay with his silence as he searches for vocabulary to express the inexpressible. His silence is not your cue to fill the space with your story, ideas or words. A simple touch of his hand, or an embrace around the shoulder will assure him that you care. And at that moment, knowing someone cares and is brave enough to be with him in his pain is powerful comfort.
What you Don’t Know, You Don’t Know
Even if we have experienced a loss similar to that of your friend, you don’t really know how he feels. His relationship with the deceased, his unfinished business, his personality, his previous experiences with death and grief all create our friend’s perfect storm of mourning. If you have similar experiences, the authentic response is, “Even though my mother died too, I really have no idea how this is for you. Please tell me so I can understand and be supportive for you.”
Then, when you can’t take it any longer and you know you have a piece of insight or verbal consolation, make it your goal to ask your grieving friend for permission to share an idea or suggestion before you offer. As you do this, remind yourself that you cannot and should not “fix” their grief for them. That is their work to do. Yet if you see them really suffering, ask for permission to share. It might go like this:
“Would it be okay with you if I shared what really helped me?” Keep it brief and check in with them to see if that was of any help for them.
Always ask their permission before praying. “May I pray for you right now?” Friends in grief are vulnerable and they may be very spiritually private. Asking is a polite gesture of honoring their privacy.
Being a friend to the grieving just takes a little extra thoughtfulness. Consider what would be kind and supportive for you. Then remember it is probably different for your friend. So ASK before you jump in and offer your wisdom or help. They might need something you hadn’t even thought of. Authenticity and asking are your keys to coming alongside someone with a broken heart. You can come comfortably close and be inclusive of those who are mourning. Keep it real; keep asking.
So it may have been several weeks or months since you stood by the side of your friend at the funeral or services of someone they loved dearly. While life has gone on somewhat normally for you, it hasn’t been the same for your friend. On the outside, he or she might appear to be “handling it” well. But I need you to know that inside, they think of their loved one multiple times in EVERY 24 hour period ~ sometimes constantly. And with those thoughts come emotions that run the range from tears to anger, sadness to a happy memory, regret and guilt to despair. So if you want to be a friend who cares for their grieving heart, remember that it is still grieving.
Comfort for a Grieving Friend’s Heart
Here are a few ideas that could help you approach the subject of your friend’s grief. This is not a sequence list, just random suggestions for coming closer to your friend rather than isolating them in their pain and sorrow.
Tell them you wonder how their grief is going
Ask if they want to talk about it
Assure them that whatever emotions they might be experiencing it is part of grieving
Ask them to share a memory
Ask to share one of your memories of the person who died
Make a point of sending cards, texts, or flowers on significant days such as birthday, anniversary, and holidays
Show them that you are safe for them to be themselves by listening more than speaking and sharing their tears rather than handing them a tissue
Ask if they would like some grief resources that could help them understand their own grief and guide them through this difficult time
Because the above quote is true, it is critical for us to support our friends to grieve, even though it is painful. However, we are to come along side of them not to provoke or prevent their suffering, but to support them through it. May the Spirit of Comfort guide you as you stay close to your grieving friend.
Alligator skin is not bunny fur. Just like, cow hide is not bird feathers. So what does this little brief zoology lesson have to do with being a compassionate comforter? Here it is in one sentence: comfort others in your own skin.
Comfort in your own Skin
If you are not a card or letter writer, you can reach out to a hurting friend through a text or email. Maybe words are not your strong suite, but you are great at small acts of kindness like bringing a vase of flowers, holding open a door, offering to help with their work load at the office, or polishing shoes. You get the idea, you are the one who likes doing the small things that doesn’t get much noticed, but you know it will make their day.
Take Them out to the Ball Game
Some of you are the friend who will arrange for a concert, a camping trip, a day drive to the river, lake or ocean. You might be the one to invite them golfing or fishing, or to the car races. You know that their isolation will only accentuate their suffering. You also know that the brief distractions you can share with them will not heal the broken heart or fix their grief. You know they have to work it through and do their personal hard work of mourning. Yet, you can give them space to be themselves. Together you share an enjoyable activity and that demonstrates your love and concern for them as they grieve.
Share a Meal
Others of you might be gifted in the food department. You love to cook, to host people in your home, or to take a meal to a grieving friend. Maybe cooking is not your thing, but you love food and you like to invite a hurting friend to a great meal at a restaurant. You might share a few items from the farmer’s market. Stop some fresh produce by and let them know you are thinking about them. The important thing is to be present with love, patience, and genuine care. Be prepared to listen to their memories, their confusion, and their sadness.
Here is another type of comforter. These are the people who are comfortable with the spiritual side of nurturing a broken-hearted friend. You will be the one who offers to pray. Your faith is not shaken when your grieving friend rails against God. Their anger doesn’t turn you away. Nor do you try to fix it for them. Rather, you take a mental note and at a later time, ask them if they are still thinking the same way. Then you graciously share a new perspective of God as it relates to our suffering and leave a little pebble of hope for them to hold onto.
Pity vs. Compassion
There are as many ways to comfort as there are people. I hope you can see that in these few scenarios, there is a place for every type of comforter. The mantra is simply, comfort others in your own skin. Stephen Levine puts it so powerfully, “When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity, when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.” Fear creates walls, barriers, misconceptions, misunderstanding, etc. While love comes from an authentic core and it brings healing, openness, trust, and comfort. So whatever skin you wear, do it with love rather than fear and your grieving friend will know it is your genuine care and love that motivates you.
It Takes a Zoo . . .
Keep in mind that it takes a zoo to comfort a grieving friend. All types of comforting friends, each doing your part to come along and support those who mourn is what makes the positive difference in the lives of the bereaved. Feather, fur, skin and hide are all needed for the mourning to feel your compassion through a casserole, fishing trip, card, or a vase of flowers.
Every once in awhile I come across another author who allows the words in his heart to say what I really need to hear, know or understand. A few days ago I came across Mike Tucker’s post on FaceBook following the death of his beloved wife, Gayle. With his permission I share it with you. I hope you will find insight and comfort as Mike speaks openly about his grief journey.
“Often when I share my grief there are some who want to attempt to “fix” it. They offer hopeful sayings, etc. I understand and appreciate that they want to help. I have no problem with it and agree with all they are saying. They say what they say because they love me, want to help me, and long to remind me of things we both know to be true. I truly love them for their concern and their effort.
However, reminding me of the promise of heaven does not often relieve my current suffering. I realize that heaven is real and one day I will see Gayle again. I say “Glory” for this promise! But I want to see her now! My bed and my heart are empty now! I have no partner in ministry now! I have no one to share my joys and sorrows with now! (I have no one to prepare a meal but instead I eat my own “burnt offerings.” )
The other day in Galveston TX., I saw a couple with their grandchildren at a restaurant. They were obviously on vacation. I was with my grandchildren by myself. I wanted Gayle to be with us and the fact that she was not made me cry. We had plans to one day travel with our grandchildren. That will not happen now.
Heaven cannot come soon enough and I am thankful that people share that promise with me. I’ve preached on that promise often. But right now I find it more comforting for someone to simply say something to the effect of: “I hear you.” or, “No words.” or, “I’ve been there.” Or better yet, grab a hankie and cry with me. I’m beyond being cheered up. I long for empathy, not an elixir. No such magical potion exists this side of heaven I’m afraid.”
Comforting a grieving friend can have its prickly moments, but when authentic support is given and received, it is deeply satisfying for both parties. While it is basic to our shared humanity that we need each other, at times we push away those who are the very ones we most need. As a comforter, please remember that your efforts will eventually have the positive results as you remain consistent, calm, and caring.
Let’s talk about the prickles for a little bit. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Hurting people are more capable of hurting other people. Short tempers and unkind words are often an automatic response towards others when we find ourselves in pain. This goes for emotional pain as well as physical pain.
If the grieving person has been known to turn passive aggressive when their feelings are hurt, this may likely be a common default for them in the pain of grieving. Shutting down and/or pushing you out of their lives might be a natural response for this type of person.
If someone already struggles with minimal coping skills, grieving will not improve that limited ability. You might observe substance use or abuse as a method of surviving their pain. You might notice severe mood swings and other unexpected behaviors.
The level of one’s mental health plays another factor for the grieving. The shock of loss and the onset of pain produces triggers that can escalate problems for them. The mentally unhealthy person struggles to find a clear and healing path to travel with their pain.
So if you are a friend of one who grieves and you are finding it challenging to know how to comfort your friend, may I suggest that you keep a couple of things in mind for your own well being:
It is not your job to fix the pain that has overtaken the heart of your friend. Instead, it is your privilege to feel it with them and let them know you care. Just listen and cry with them.
Assure them that their anger, suffering, mood swings, or passive aggressive behaviors will not turn you away from them. Be patient with them and allow some space, yet stay informed and aware of their behaviors and needs via those who might be closer to the bereaved. Their mental health challenges and how it interacts with their broken heart is their business and their work. Your part is to support them and encourage them to get professional help through a grief coach, counselor, or other mental health professional. (Most pastors do not have training in this type of counseling and might not be a dependable resource)
Keep very clear and healthy boundaries for yourself so that you are aware of who is responsible for what: they are responsible for their healing work and seeking resources to help them, you are responsible to listen, care, encourage, and pray.
Praying for the bereaved is a God given privilege. Taking a crushed and broken hearted friend to the throne room of God is a powerful influence in each of your lives. God knows your friend’s needs completely. He knows your gifts, skills and limitations also. By keeping yourself and your friend in prayer, God will be able to work on both of your behalves to bring grace and mercy at just the moment needed. So as much as possible, pray with your friend when you are together. Pray for him or her when you are apart. Pray for yourself and for God’s patience, understanding and on-going support to be in your heart for your friend.
Your friend needs you to be strong, consistent and not easily turned away. This kind of love is best fueled by the Love that comes from the heart of God. As you comfort your friend, I pray that the God of all comfort will be present with the two of you and His faithful healing hand will soothe the pain and heal the wound.