In one of the greatest movie scenes about grief, Sally Field plays a mother who just lost her only daughter. Following the funeral, she is accompanied by her closest friends who can only imagine her pain. They comfort her, listen to her, offer words of wisdom, and in the end, provide comic relief. It’s just a movie, but what a great depiction of how we should help someone in their time of need.
Unfortunately, we have let grief become a factor of seclusion. We’ve learned to keep our sorrows private, and thus the world has adjusted. If we don’t know what to say, we simply say nothing, forcing the grieving widow(er), parent, child, spouse, or friend to carry their burdens alone.
“All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes. My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.” Psalm 38:9-11
Did David’s friends mean to isolate him, or did they just not know how to comfort him? Either way, he felt alone and miserable when he should have been lifted up with encouragement.
Galatians 6:2 says to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Here, the author is specifically referring to the burdens of sin and temptation. Grief comes with temptation too; some people who hurt may want to give up, quit their jobs, turn to alcohol, become abusive to themselves and/or others, hide away, turn from God, or partake in any number of unhealthy choices. Sometimes we humans need a little help.
I’ve never known how to help someone through their grief until I experienced it myself. This is why I want to share with you a list of ways to support a person during a difficult time, whether you understand their pain or not. Choosing to do/say nothing out of ignorance is an excuse to let that person suffer alone, which should never be an option.
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How to comfort a grieving loved one
This could mean many things: a phone call, a visit, a text or email or Facebook message—something that lets the person know you are there to offer your support in any way you can. Support could come in the form of listening (we’ll get to that), simply being near, making them laugh, providing meals, tagging along to run errands, etc.
Keep reaching out.
Don’t stop. Some people need space to grieve, and that’s okay; but don’t let that be your justification for leaving them to carry their burdens alone. Give them space if they need it, but check in periodically in case they reach a new level of grief and need some extra support down the road. You don’t have to harp on the negatives and remind them of their sorrows (I promise: they haven’t forgotten) or even ask how they are doing every time, but your companionship may mean more than you realize.
This sounds simple, but too often people mistake listening for offering advice or explanations. If a person in pain (and in many other circumstances, but that’s beside the point) asks for your advice, feel free to give it. Otherwise, just listen. Just be there. Just pray. Whatever you do, they should know that they are not alone and can vent their frustrations without being judged…
Remember that each person experiences pain differently than every other person on the planet. Two people who experience the same exact scenario can feel very different emotions and levels of pain. What’s more, we all grieve in our own ways. Some ways may be destructive, in which a person needs a gentle correction, but we never need judgment to top off our pains.
Acknowledge their pain.
Offering condolences is not the same thing (it’s kind and appropriate, but not the same). Acknowledging pain means simply offering an understanding that their pain is real and justifiable. In the early stage after a recent loss, several people expressed their sympathies, which I truly appreciated, but it wasn’t until months later that someone finally acknowledged my pain and let me know that everything I was feeling was normal and reasonable. A weight was lifted that day.
Send a gift or card.
Gifts are rarely necessary, and sometimes even inappropriate, but can be meaningful with enough thought. Sending an appropriate card with an encouraging message is more than fitting. But don’t be offended if the person doesn’t acknowledge it; it could simply be too painful (and that’s not the point of sending it, anyway, right?). Click here for some thoughtful gift ideas I found online (from Hallmark, no less). And remember: grief comes in many forms, not just physical death.
Offer a hug.
Even for a typical non-hugger, hugs (as well as laughter, orgasm, play, and managing stress) are proven to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone.” (Just type it in Google.) I’m not good at hugging, which leads many people to believe that I hate hugs. While I don’t always like to be touched and hugged, there’s no doubt that a well-timed embrace can reduce stress and cause loving feelings. Yuck.
If you haven’t dealt with grief yourself, it can be especially difficult to offer the support a loved one needs. But you don’t want them to feel like King David, lonely and wretched. I hope this article serves as a guide for those who want to support a loved one but simply don’t know how.
If you have your own insights to offer, please share in the comments. Please also remember to respect the views of others, which may differ from yours.