Have you ever felt unsure of what to do as you watched a friend grieve a loved one? My wife recently lost a cousin in a tragic car accident. As I watched the family grieve, I found myself wondering what to do.
It felt a bit ironic because almost five years ago, four days before my wedding, my mom was also killed in tragic accident. This was the second funeral I attended since Mom’s, and each time I found myself at a loss for what to do. You would think it would come easy for me, since I know what grief is like. But it’s almost as if because I know what it’s like, I find myself more hesitant to say anything, slower to give any kind of expression, and less able to know how to best comfort.
There really is nothing one can do at a time like that to alleviate pain. And the pain is so deep and excruciating that it’s almost mockery to pretend we can identify. As we drove the 13 hours to where the funeral would be held, and as I watched the family and their loved ones grieve, unsure of my role in a time like that, I kept asking myself, “What do people do for me that feel good to me as I grieve?”
Grief is intensely personal
What a person lost when he or she lost a loved one is unique to him or her. Mom meant different things to each of us in the family, so what each of us grieves now that she is no longer here is different, and that’s OK. Furthermore, people grieve differently. Some cry a lot. Others go into an immediate sense of shock. As we process grief, the journey is deeply personal. Don’t expect things to go a certain way. Just let it flow.
Grief is simultaneously relational
Just because grief is personal doesn’t mean we don’t need others in the journey. In fact, for us to make it through life processing grief in a healthy way, it is imperative for us to have others around who can help us carry the load. Walking through grief together is not comfortable for anyone, but important for everyone.
Grieving doesn’t mean you are weak or messed up
No, it means you’re healthy. Feeling pain when someone you loved and needed is taken away is precisely how we are designed to function.
Grief does not leave by ignoring it
In fact, unaddressed grief piles up and begins poking its head out in seemingly unrelated areas of life. It may be anger whose source you’re unsure of, depression you can’t overcome, a constant sense of anxiety, feeling emotionally drained, or a strong drive to keep busy. Facing pain takes a lot of energy, but ignoring it actually takes more.
Grief never goes away
Time does not heal grief. We grieve because we lost something and will never get it back on this earth. The intensity in which we grieve fluctuates and, with time, can diminish. But grief will remain as long as what we loved is gone. That’s OK. We live in a broken world — things are not as they should be.
Grieving doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cry all the time
There are different emotions we feel in the grieving journey, and different ways of expressing those emotions. Crying is one of them. Just because one doesn’t cry doesn’t mean he is not hurting deeply.
Grief is something God identifies with and cares about
The message of Jesus Christ is in itself a message of grief. It’s a message that offers hope for grief — the only message in this world offering hope in the face of catastrophic loss. God the Father gave his only Son, a Son who become obedient to the point of death. Our maker knows what it feels like to have lost someone he deeply loved.
Grief can be comforted
It never goes away, but it can be comforted. And I don’t mean by God; I mean by those close to the ones grieving.
That’s where you and I come in. When our friends or extended family are grieving the loss of loved ones, they need us. Here are 15 simple yet powerful ways we can grieve with them.
1. Put yourself in their shoes
Be careful not to just do what you think would feel nice; work hard at becoming tuned in to what they’re feeling and what they might want.
2. Don’t quote Romans 8:28
This passage is not talking about having lost a loved one; it’s talking about suffering against the flesh. When we are facing a fleshly weakness, but resist it and submit to the Spirit of God out of love for him, God always works it together for good so that we are conformed to his image. That’s what Paul is talking about. The world is broken. It has been since Eden. There are things in this life that fall apart and will not have a good outcome this side of heaven. Losing a loved one is one of those.
3. Be slow to quote any verse
People who are grieving don’t need a brushing-up on their theology. And quoting verses about God’s goodness doesn’t make him feel any more good. God is at work, period. He doesn’t need you and me to speak into a grieving person’s heart. The act of losing someone close is in itself God speaking. We need to make sure we don’t do anything to alienate them from listening. There’s a time for bringing God’s Word into the grieving process, but be slow and sensitive in doing it.
4. Don’t try fixing what can’t be fixed
Mom is gone. Your brother isn’t coming back. Their baby won’t ever be in the womb again. And nothing anyone does or says can change it. It’s okay to grieve what is broken.
5. Be slow to say anything; just be
In the middle of grief, words are like salt. They can be profoundly soothing and bring healing. But too much becomes repulsive. Simply being with the grieving persons is meaningful enough. And then listen to the Spirit and to the ones grieving to know if anything should be said.
6. Hug. Tell them “I am so sorry.”
What do you do when you see them for the first time after hearing of the loss? Hug them. Tell them you’re so sorry. If you feel like crying, cry with them.
7. Face your own pain
Allow yourself to feel your own grief and brokenness. We all have grief at some level. Even if we feel no grief, we at least have brokenness. Let your brokenness grieve you. Let yourself feel deeply the reality that this world is falling apart.
8. Stay near
If you are a close friend, stay physically and emotionally near them. They need you.
9. Know your place
If you are not a close friend, recognize that your presence at the viewing or funeral feels loving and is appreciated, but you are not whom they need most right now. Keep your interactions brief and remain quiet and respectful as long as you are near.
10. Don’t ask how they’re doing or feeling
It should be obvious how they’re doing. But if it’s not, and you ask, they won’t know how to answer. Just stay away from that question.
11. Anticipate their needs
Don’t say, “If you need anything, call me.” Instead, jump in and fill needs you already know they have. Help them with practical needs, even those needs you feel they should be able to do on their own, and be willing to that for years to come. If there is a time limit in your mind, you will inevitably one day hurt them.
12. Tell stories
Stories about the person they lost are probably the most comforting thing anyone can do for a grieving friend. If you knew their loved one, reminisce with them. Tell them, especially, about things they may not have known about their family member. Stories stir up memories, and memories keep the person near.
13. Give them space to process
If you notice, I’ve used the language of “journey” and “process” a lot. You never “get over” the loss. Our friends don’t need us to help them “get over it.” They need us to create safe spaces of time to feel, remember and even question. The journey of grief includes shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. People may go through it in that order, but more often than not, it’s back and forth. That’s OK.
In the process of grief, people invariably question God. Don’t be alarmed by that. Don’t be afraid to go down trails that concern you without correcting them. Wrestling with God, with the brokenness of this world, with whether or not he is actually good, is a sign they are traveling well on the journey of grief. They don’t need you to keep them on the road. They just need you to be with them, giving them space.
14. Let them talk
Because they won’t always feel like talking (and that’s just fine), when they do, let them talk. Don’t take over the conversation, but also don’t be indifferent to what they’re saying. Ask questions. Keep them talking. Then, when they’re finished, let them stop.
15. Show them Jesus
What did Jesus do when he met with friends who had recently lost a loved one? He wept. He stood with them in their pain. He let them question and accuse him, and never once do we have record of him rebuking them for it. We as humans tend to feel more insecure for Jesus than he himself does. When Jesus came to Martha and Mary after Lazarus had died, he felt with them. He lingered. He even felt anger over what happened. He didn’t try fixing their pain. He simply grieved with them.
Jesus reminds Martha that if she believes Him she will see the glory of the Lord (John 11:40). That glory may be seen in the form of miracles or in the form of the resurrection at the last day. It’s really beside the point. He simply reminded them that the glory of the Lord will be seen — if they believe.
God is not indifferent to our pain. He feels with us.
In the middle of grief, it is easy to question God’s goodness. It’s part of the process. But one of the most healing things for me has been discovering that God himself feels with us in our pain.
He himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains. (Is. 53:4)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
God is redeeming broken things.
I recently visited the accident site, again, where Mom was killed. I still don’t understand why she had to be taken that early in life and in that way. But as I stood where I last saw her alive, feeling again the grief, I remembered what Paul said about the afflictions we face in this life.
For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. (2 Cor. 4:17)
Pain we experience on this earth is working for us glory in heaven. That doesn’t mean pain on this earth necessarily turns out good, but that heaven is totally worth suffering for. Standing in the field, replaying the scene of Mom laid out on a stretcher, I was grateful for God who is alive, personally interacting with me, redeeming the broken things in my life.
Losing a loved one hurts like crazy! It completely reshapes the landscape of one’s family life. Having friends who know how to grieve well is what a grieving person needs most. As I reflect on my experience in losing Mom, this is what those kinds of friends do for me.
Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. He blogs at asherwitmer.com, where this post first appeared.