Dos and Don’t when Loved-Ones are Facing Loss
“Grief shared is halved. Joy shared is doubled.” – Proverb
One of the most important – if not THE most important – aspects of community is to share in the good times and share in the bad times. Watching people we love who are grieving is hard, especially when we are feeling awkward and unsure of what to do. These are my personal “dos and don’t” for walking alongside a grieving family.
Do show up, virtually and physically. Send a text. Make a quick phone call. Drop something by the house. Knowing friends are there and thinking of them is a great comfort.
Don’t push in. Unless you are specifically asked, don’t insist on visiting or staying too long. Sometimes a polite “Do you want to come in?” can turn into the grieving family serving you, rather than the intended other way around. It could be a welcome distraction, or it could add to their burdens. Especially in the early days, just a hug and a smile is enough.
Offer words of Comfort
Do empathize and be authentic. “This really sucks.” “I’m sorry this happened to you.” “My heart aches for your loss.” Show them you share their pain.
Don’t try to find a higher meaning. As Christians, we know there is purpose in suffering and death, but reminding friends – especially in early days of grief – can be delicate or even disastrous. You never know how someone, in their grief, will interpret even well-intentioned words. Avoid things like “At least you had that time together” and “It’s all for the best” or even “They are with Jesus.” True words, but they may not be ready to hear them.
Do just sit and listen. Hear them talk about their pain, or anything else they want to share. Share small affirmations and words of comfort. Validate their feelings.
Don’t share your own stories of loss. Again, unless you are specifically asked, it is better to listen than to talk. This is hard. There may be many awkward silences, and our instincts are to fill those silences with helpful advice and common experiences. Resist that impulse, and stick with simple words of empathy. It is OK to sit in silence. Also, don’t ask a lot of questions. You may want to know “what happened,” but be aware you may cause more pain just by asking. More than likely, they will tell you when they are ready if they feel it is appropriate.
Ease the Daily Burdens
Do offer to help in specific ways. Think of what will be a blessing, no matter how simple or mundane, and offer that. “I made chili tonight and there’s a lot of it … should I bring you dinner tonight?” “Can I come over tomorrow and do some laundry for you?” “Do you want my husband to mow your lawn this weekend?” “I’m going to the store … can I pick up some toilet paper and paper towels for your house?” They can say yes or no, or your offer might prompt them to think of something else specific. Once they know you’re willing to wade through the children’s dirty underwear, they won’t think twice about asking you to walk their dog.
Don’t make generic offers of help. “Let me know if there is anything we can do for you …” is something we say often, but it is not always helpful. They may not know if you mean “pay for the funeral” or “pick someone up from soccer practice” or something in between. In times of crisis or grief, telling someone how they can help may be just another thing to do for a grieving friend to do. Your sincere and earnest desire to help potentially becomes “Oh crap, now I have to think of something for you to do to help me so you will better, and I can’t even remember if I ate anything today.” You want to ease their burdens, not add to them even the tiniest of ways.
Check In Frequently
Do touch base often, especially after significant events. After meeting with the pastor. After guests leave town. After a birthday or anniversary. Just a quick “I was thinking about you” or “I wanted to see how you’re doing” is enough.
Don’t hover and don’t push. You want your loved-ones to know you’ll be there, ready to listen when they are ready to talk or when they need help. You don’t want them to feel pushed or prodded. All grief needs space and time to unwind. You should stand by while it happens, not hasten the process.
Pay Attention to the Children
Do pay special attention to the children. Children, especially the young children, may not entirely understand what is going on. Children process loss very differently, and even if they do not have or understand their own feelings of grief, they know that Mommy and Daddy are sad or distracted or maybe even a little short-tempered. Offer to take them for a playdate or a short outing in order to give their parents a little break or space to breathe. When you see them, make an effort to get down on their level and talk directly to them. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a child is the simple act of seeing them as their own person.
Don’t instruct the children. Offer sympathy in a child-appropriate way, but don’t probe on the feelings of children, or take it upon yourself to explain the situation. They may (will probably) say things that seem wildly inappropriate to our adult ears – “We went to the funeral and Mommy was crying but I was happy because we got cake after” – but just go with it. Don’t correct them, just validate what they are saying. “Yeah, Mommy was sad” or “I like cake, too.”
Begin and End with Prayer
Do pray for them. Ask the family if they would like you to pray with them. Turn each fleeting thought of the family in a petition for comfort and acceptance. As Christians, it is the best thing we can do.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.