As clinical chaplain, I quickly learned that most people are uncomfortable with grief, even doctors and pastors. So if you have a grieving friend and you feel totally inadequate, take a deep breath. Your response is natural. The wide and unpredictable pendulum of grief’s physical effects – from weeping and yelling to silence, from stillness to shakes – can make anyone hesitant and uncertain how to care. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of ways you can support a grieving friend.
Before you print this post and use it like a blueprint, please note – these are options, not rules or a checklist to follow. These suggestions are appropriate ways to approach someone who is grieving but not every approach will be a good fit for every relationship. Remember, you know your friend better than I. You have a history with them built across months and years of experiences and conversations. Draw from that however you can.
Grief requires us to pause, reflect deeply on another’s soul, and to act through discomfort. As difficult as that is, there are many simple things you can do that will be a powerful balm to a grieving heart.
Especially when a friend is dealing with an unexpected loss, go to their side. Even if you don’t know what to say, showing up is something they will never forget. Your physical presence says so many important things: I love you, I’ll stand with you in your darkest moments, you are not alone.
OFFER HEALING TOUCH
Physical touch is a powerful response to raw grief. It has the ability to soothe and support in ways and times when words are inadequate. So take their shaking hands between yours. Place a gentle hand on their shoulder as they cry. Offer an unhurried embrace where your arms become a safety harness wrapped securely around their back. They may not say anything in response or they may cry harder, but the warmth seeping from your skin into theirs is medicine that we cannot bottle.
ACKNOWLEDGE LOSS WITH WORDS
In the shadow of death words seem insufficient, but they are not. While “I’m sorry for your loss” is appropriate, we are all capable of saying something more meaningful, more personal. Who was this person to your friend? What role did he or she play in your friend’s life? If you knew the deceased, what about them made an impression on you? Think about this and then say something that honors them and their relationship with your friend. Keep it simple – there’s no need for a lengthy speech – perhaps two or three sentences that show you understand the significance of this loss.
One important caveat – under no circumstances are you responsible for making sense of your friend’s loss! Death and grief are never easy, even when we have time to prepare for them. There are lots of true things we can say about death and God’s will and the end to suffering, but they will never be helpful to someone saying goodbye to a person whose life and spirit shaped their own. Avoid any and all trite phrases that attempt to explain death or try to look on the bright side. Be very, very careful about quoting from the Bible. Even if your friend is a person of faith, and even though scripture speaks ultimate truths, context and timing remain crucial when comforting someone who is grieving. Stick to this famous proverb– if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.
Grief can act like a great chill that freezes our limbs and our hearts. We can get stuck in that horrible moment when we suddenly realize our loved one is gone forever. As a young chaplain I learned that getting people to share stories and memories can melt this emotional deep freeze. Storytelling can be a helpful healing tool throughout the grieving process, not just in the moments after death, but you have to discern when it might be helpful.
I recently led a graveside service for a family grieving the loss of a beloved wife, sister and mother of three young adults. With only twenty minutes permitted at the site, I invited those gathered to share a sentence or two beginning with, “I will always remember.” What followed was a poignant time of stories and tributes to her character. Tears flowed freely and loudly, but from them emerged the first smiles and laughter of the day
TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONS OF SYMPATHY
Modern friendships often stretch across states, continents and oceans. We can’t always be physically present with a grieving friend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for them well. I’m a big advocate of tangible expressions of sympathy. Think of something you can do that will engage your friend’s senses, something they can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Even when grief puts our brains in a zombie-like state, our senses remain active. That’s why, for centuries, people have sent flowers when someone dies. Flowers are a visible and vibrant message of love; their scent is your presence subtly filling your friend’s home.
Keep in mind that not all expressions of sympathy will be equally well-received. Some people won’t want their freezers stuffed with six types of lasagna. Others might resent a Hallmark card with a canned message and your signature. So take time to consider, how can you be present in a way that will be most meaningful to your friend? Maybe, for reasons only you would understand, baseball tickets would be more meaningful than a casserole, a mix CD better able to lighten their grief than a card, a framed photo a better tribute than a bouquet whose blooms will droop and decay.
Grieving people are rarely able to articulate what help they need. If you know them well enough, you can name their needs for them. Look for simple ways to step into their regular routine. Take their trash to the curb, do their grocery shopping, take over carpool duties, mow their lawn, etc. Communicate well as you pitch in. How and when can you help? For how long? Make sure you leave room for them to tell you if it’s too much or if this type of help is unwanted.
BE AWARE OF SPECIAL OCCAISIONS
Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations: these are things your friend thought they would get to share with the deceased. Death stole these moments and grief will flavor these celebrations toward the bittersweet. The anniversary of their death will also be a difficult day for your friend. Be attentive to their emotional needs on these days. Talk about it ahead of time and make yourself available, both physically and emotionally, as they need.
Grief is a bit like a circus lion. We can approach focused, with caution and care. We can do all the “appropriate” things but be quickly reminded that as tame as it seems on the outside, at heart it’s still a wild animal. Despite your care and thoughtfulness, your friend may not receive your offerings well. They might lash out or seem indifferent. Don’t take this personally; your friend has a lion inside them. An unpleasant response doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. These are some of the most difficult days of your friend’s life. If your actions are thoughtful and sincere, you have done well. Trust that and keep caring.