A friend, family member, neighbor or coworker experiences the death of someone close to them. What to do? When this happens, most of us don’t know what to say or do – and don’t have the slightest clue as to how to respond appropriately.
Here are 10 practical elements to keep in mind when you are trying to comfort someone in their grief.
1. Remember, your job is not to fix them. When we see people mourning, many times we’re tempted to believe our job is to fix them and make the pain go away. Don’t try to be profound. And don’t try to be the person with all the answers. Most times, people just want to know they are loved, supported and listened to in their grief. Cry with them, listen to them, help them, support them, pray for and with them, check in with them, but don’t try to fix them. It’s not your job to fix them.
2. Listen more, speak less. Oftentimes, we don’t know exactly what to say…and in our uncertainty and nervousness we just talk…and talk…and talk. Most times that is not helpful to a grieving person. Love listens. Be the best listener you can possibly be. It is better to err on the side of saying too little than saying too much.
3. Avoid the cliches. “It’ll all work out for the best.” “God’s in control and His ways are better than our ways.” “He/she is in a better place.” We’ve heard these – maybe you’ve even said these at some point to someone grieving. Make a note to not use these in the future. Even though these may be theological and fundamentally true, it’s not helpful in times of grieving. It is wise to avoid these phrases. Don’t give trite, cheap, easy answers is such a significant and difficult time.
4. Make it a point to check in with them consistently in the coming months. Many times its the ones closest to the person who has died that can be strong and, around the time of the funeral, comfort others. But oftentimes, when the last person leaves town after the funeral and the last casserole has been eaten, it hits them as they now have time to process and are often left feeling alone in that processing. It’s at this time that they will need friends and family members the most. It also means a lot if you remember holidays and anniversary markers of their loss, as these times can be extremely difficult reminding them someone significant is missing.
5. When you don’t know what to say, tell them that. It’s okay to simply say, “I’m not sure what to say right now…” You are being honest and empathizing with them. Even a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” is appropriate.
6. Everyone grieves in different ways and at different times. We’re all unique in our wiring, personality and backgrounds and we can’t expect everyone to grieve in the same manner. Some will show lots of intense emotion, others might be perceived as stoic. Some might grieve immediately and for others it may take months. Some will want people around often while others will want time alone. Give people space – and permission – to grieve in healthy ways as they need. And don’t take it personally, become defensive and overreact if it is different than what you expected or anticipated.
7. Verbalize compassion. Communicate that you love them and that you care for them and will be with them through this.
8. Embrace. Hugs, arms around shoulders and embraces are not only beneficial but oftentimes necessary for the grieving process. There are physiological benefits to touch during times of grief. Be generous (but equally appropriate) with touching and embracing others.
9. Ask. Sometimes a direct, caring question is appropriate: “What do you need from me/us right now?” or “How can we help you in the next seven days/this month?” Additionally, proactively look for ways to help with details that are necessary, but oftentimes overlooked (mowing the law, doing laundry, going grocery shopping, cleaning the house, etc) When appropriate, don’t ask; just jump in and provide help.
10. Make a commitment to be in prayer for them. Lift them up in prayer, even when in their grief they might not be able to pray themselves. Commit to bringing their situation regularly before God and ask Him that He provides comfort, peace and hope in the midst of the grief. And don’t say “I’ll pray for you” unless you actually mean it – and will do it!