When a friend or loved one is in the throws of grief, we feel helpless. This is normal. We’re compelled to do something because we are desperate to “fix it.” This is normal too. There are no right words, no perfect action. Our role as the loving support team is critical but can feel overwhelming. Moments our friends need us can pass us by because we’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Don’t freeze… don’t smother… just stay present. It’s easier than you think. Here are ten quick and practical ideas to help support someone in grief.
1. Compassionate silence is okay.
When a friend has experienced traumatic loss, they will likely still be in shock by the time you’re made aware of what happened. They will probably not answer the phone or respond to written/text communication. It is nearly impossible for them to understand what has happened, much less communicate it with others. In the immediate days after the loss, just let them know you love them and you care. Simply knowing you’re in the wings is more comfort than you realize. General things not to say, particularly if a couple has lost a child: you can try again, at least you are young, you still have your other beautiful children, he/she is healthy and whole or in a better place, God needed another angel, or that everything happens for a reason.
We mean so well but these can be hurtful adages to share with someone in profound grief. With time and distance they can find the clarity in each of these statements, but in the moment, there is no logical reason why the tragedy happened. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say it. Just let them know you love them and that you care. If you’re live and in person and you panic, breathe and pray: God, give me the right words or none at all to be a blessing to my friend in this moment.
**If you have said any of these things with best intentions, see #10. Give yourself grace. Don’t revisit it, just let it go. We are all learning. You’ll do better next time.
2. Send a card to support someone in grief.
This is so easy, and a simple gesture on your part will mean the world to someone in pain. Pick a card with a thoughtful sentiment that speaks to you and sign your name. An easy go-to note for a sympathy card: We love and care for you so much. We are celebrating __________’s beautiful life with you. Send it the day you learn of their loss. It’s the very least we can do.
**Compassionately continue to use the name of the person who has passed. We are afraid to do this because we don’t want to hurt the grieving person. But it truthfully hurts them even more when we don’t acknowledge the precious lives of the people they love most. My son LJ in heaven is just as real as my living children; just as important a part of my heart. It will never cause me additional pain to hear his name or see it in writing.
3. Save advice for later.
Right now, in this moment, they will not need resources, suggestions, links, books, articles, or recommendations. While those offerings are certainly well-intentioned, save them. Share those ideas with a member of the extended family or a trusted friend. Send books and thoughtful music to their home or leave on the porch with a note that says “for when you’re ready.” Many of the books and CDs we received were tremendous blessings, but I wasn’t able to begin to look at them until long after the initial trauma had subsided. At such time when a grieving person can crawl out of the black hole of the loss, then and only then will they be ready to delve into what’s next. To truly support someone in grief, you don’t need to “fix” anything.
4. Everyone in grief needs something different.
We received so many beautiful flowers… but I cried all over again when the flowers died. I asked my mother to come bury them in the backyard because I couldn’t bear the idea of them going into the garbage. Grief is bizarre and nonsensical. So be prepared to for your normally-rational friend to behave strangely. Simply help anonymously with a task. Sign up to bring a meal and be willing to leave it on the porch if they’re not up for visitors. Step in where you can. Don’t harbor hurt feelings if your phone call or message is not returned. Release your expectations. You are there to serve and support them, not the other way around.
5. Be a sensitive visitor.
Many well-intentioned friends came to visit. And we needed them. If your offer to visit is welcomed, bring every ounce of love you have and read the room. If they need morbid humor, laugh with them. They can be angry if they need to. Breathe and stay with them through it. You don’t need to remind them to be positive or look on the bright side. There is plenty of time for that later. You do not have to fix anything. You can’t fix it anyway. So take the pressure off! The heroes of the grieving are those who can simply “be with.” No judgment, no advice. Kick off your shoes and make your own cup of tea or coffee. Stay for 20 minutes and then ask if they’d like you to leave so they can take a nap. If they need you to stay, don’t rush out.
6. Ask helpful questions to support someone in grief.
Helpful questions to ask: Can I walk your dog? Can I help you fold a load of laundry? Is there an errand that I can run? Can I take the kids for an afternoon or overnight? Can I pick up some groceries for you? Be specific. We mean so very well when we ask: how can I help you? Or: is there anything I can do? A grieving person cannot process that question. There are too many steps involved to find a quick answer. One strange task that paralyzed me was grocery shopping. I was terrified I would run into someone that didn’t know what happened, or only knew half the story, or that someone would say something that would make me crumble in the middle of the aisle. So others did our shopping for months. It was beyond a blessing.
Other helpful heart-to-heart questions to ask: How is your heart today? Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Would you like to talk serious stuff, or would you like a recap of Jimmy Fallon’s lip sync battle last night? Would you like to go for a drive? Can I bring you a milkshake? Or a box of plates to smash?
7. Be mindful.
Helpful questions NOT to ask: What happened? What are you going to do now? Or, basically any question involving details or information that doesn’t matter at the moment. Imagine how you might feel if you had to recap details of the most heartbreaking experience of your life. Be mindful not to ask questions to fill the silence. Those are the most emotionally exhausting ones for a person in grief.
8. Show up.
Go to the service. It matters. Put your own junk aside and be there when it counts. This is true especially in the weeks afterwards when everyone else goes back to their regularly scheduled programming. A grieving person’s world is still standing still. Check in to support someone in grief. Send a thoughtful text or a card. Invite them to lunch. Listen. Make the conversation about them, not about you. Let them be exactly as they need to be. And if they need a joke or a really bad YouTube video, have your favorites on standby. This is critical so if you need help I have an entire library of awesome suggestions for you. (My dearest loves know that any funk I’m in can be brightened with a cupcake and “crap from the internet.”) Know your people and be there the way they need it.
9. Fill your own cup too.
Pray, read, learn, process, write, seek wise counsel, and take care of yourself. We can’t pour into someone else if we’re a wreck too. Sometimes there aren’t answers for why this loss occurred. It will change your perspective and your life and that takes personal work.
10. Give grace in their grief.
Grief is messy and raw and the hardest journey we ever experience. You will see people at their worst. Love them because of that. Love them through it. Be patient and forgiving and not about yourself. This is the truest form of brotherly love we’re called to – caring for people in the moments they need it most.
*Note: if you intend to offer one of these to a bereaved person, do a little research first so you know what you are sending their way.
**My personal experience is infant loss and my book list reflects this. Those who have personally experienced the loss of a parent, spouse, sibling, or any traumatic loss, our tribe and I would be so thankful for your thoughtful and gentle reading list recommendations.
Joy Comes in the Mourning: Living in Love and Walking in Light after Losing a Child by Jessica Allen
Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman (a beautiful daily devotional for any human)
Experiencing Grief by H. Norman Wright (short read navigating the 5 stages of grief)
I Will Carry You by Angie Smith (a true story of infant loss)
Lessons I Learned in the Dark: Steps to Walking by Faith, Not By Sight by Jennifer Rothschild
Safe in the Arms of God: Truth from Heaven about the Death of a Child by John MacArthur
A Grief Unveiled: One Father’s Journey Through the Death of a Child by Gregory Floyd
90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper