Sometimes it seems that sorrow comes in big waves. The Lord, in His wisdom, has seen fit to take several of our friends through times of deep grief very recently. Those of us who haven’t experienced the same sorrows often don’t know what to say or do. And those of us who have may at times be unhelpful or unthoughtful in the ways we try to empathize with our grieving friends and family.
A few months ago, my wife and I stayed with some friends who have been shepherded by the Lord through many trials. They talked with us candidly about things that helped and didn’t help them during their grieving. The things they shared were so helpful and practical, I asked if I could share them here on the blog. What follows are some of their suggestions.
“Because each situation is different, we will try to generalize…but you will need prayer. This is NOT exhaustive. This is NOT Spirit-inspired. Please rely more on God than our words, but we do hope these will prove helpful.”
How to encourage verbally
Silence is not bad. A consoling look through eye contact says more than you might think. Say less, hug more (if permitted).
Don’t be afraid to cry with them. This is humbling, but means so much!
Pray with them, but don’t preach during your prayer. It might be helpful to pray God’s promises in regard to their specific situation. For example, “God, You promise never to leave or forsake us, please help ____ to have a real consciousness of You during this time.”
Do not say you understand…only God truly does.
Do not share your own personal experiences until they have worked through their own. They may not want to hear it until later when they have questions, but right now, they may need space to sort through their emotions. Adding emotional weight to them does not help.
Speak truth coupled with love. Again, promises help. The person may need some redirection with their thoughts, but as with Job, consider that a grieving man’s words may be “wind.” They may later regret what they say even though at the time they mean every word. People often don’t think straight/biblically when they are hurting. Does this excuse sin? No, but preaching at them when they are struggling with overwhelming emotion may not help. (Remember Job’s friends.) Again, prayer may help.
By “preach” we mean: Telling a person what to do in an imperative way or saying a truth without a loving context.
We had someone tell us, “God is sovereign,” when _____ died. Is that true? Yes, but there was no context. We do know God is sovereign, but if He is not good–or our circumstance seems to defy that–how does that truth in itself bring comfort? Unless a person is rebellious to God, preaching at them probably will not help. They will likely know the truths that they should be thinking on. Rather, try to tangibly and prayerfully demonstrate love and truth for them.
Listen if they want to talk . Don’t be quick to respond/fix the problem. If they ask for advice, maybe pray with them about it instead of offering an opinion of what they should do–or wait until you’ve had time to process everything. Be slow to speak.
“I’m praying for you” will mean much more than “So-and-so is watching over you from Heaven’s gates!” Again, think, and speak truth in love.
Don’t ask what the person will do after the passing of their loved one. They may not know or want to share that just yet. They are still having to work through their emotions. They may have extenuating circumstances in which they feel overwhelmed. Maybe a better thing to ask would be, “How could I help you? Do you need someone to help with taking care of your car/taxes/meals?” They may hesitate to ask for help, so offering help may alleviate that.
So, moving on to practical help….
Ask if the family has food allergies or strong dislikes (if it is possible to get this information).
Avoid casseroles. Really, who wants someone else’s mystery goop?
Think cold cuts or very simple meals with only a few ingredients. For kids, especially, think of something typical such as fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans…These don’t require a lot of ingredients and taste great–usually.
Avoid jello salads.
Bottom line: The simpler the food (meat, vegetable, fruit, dessert), the better.
Other practical help
For widows: They may need help with their cars (changing the oil, needing to know how to handle a flat tire, etc.). They may just need someone to compare notes with if something does come up with the car and they don’t know where to take it.
They may need help with taxes and getting paperwork together for that.
They may need help maintaining their house. They may have a “honey-do-list”, but cannot get to it due to caring for their children.
They may need help with childcare so that they can run a few errands without have to worry about the kids. Or, maybe they need a time out with some friends or a time to cry.
Encouragement in prayer and notes
For kids: For those who lose a father, they may need a male figure to step in and take them hunting, fishing, and all the rugged things that men do. Similar for those who lose mothers. They may need to see the “softer” side of things. Discipleship…God is the greatest Father/Mother; it is amazing when the church body steps in and makes this tangible to the kids.
For those who have lost a baby: Don’t ask when they will have their next child (as if the first one didn’t matter). Don’t avoid the topics of babies, etc. This could be hard if the couple has friends who are expecting. Don’t be afraid of the grieving couple sharing their emotions via crying. It just means they feel strongly about the loss, as anyone would, but not that they are angry that babies were brought into the conversation. Be willing to listen.
Overall, listening is huge.