My husband Tim and I have walked our fair share of losses, and when someone asks him what to say to a grieving friend his answer is always really profound.
He says “that sucks.”
Does it sound trite? The reason is because all the profound things you want to say won’t resonate with someone in the midst of tragedy. Tim’s journey from the devastation of loss, to hope, and back again has given me the ability to watch what people say in response to grief, what comforts a griever, and what makes a griever want to punch someone in the face.
I’m no psychologist — this is my (experientially derived) list of things NOT to do when your friend is grieving:
- DON’T send notes or verses that invalidate grief. Even if both you and your grieving friend believe it to be true, words like “everything happens for a reason” are more harmful than good to someone who is suffering. That’s because cliches like these can come across as an underhanded way to tell someone they shouldn’t be brokenhearted. Same with “they are in a better place” or “you are so strong” or comparison/story-topping. Even “I know how you feel” is generally unhelpful. Assume no matter how much you, or your losses, have in common you can never, ever fully know how someone else feels. “I can only imagine how you feel” is much better (better even than “I can’t imagine how you feel”, which can be isolating). Verses that are great to share with a griever are verses of lament, because they validate brokenheartedness, ie:
Psalm 6:6-8: I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
Psalm 13:1-2: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
The healthiest thing a suffering person can do is to face their pain and losses. A true friend to a griever will face the pain as well, not whitewashing the loss.
- DON’T ask how you can help. Instead, just help. Grieving people often already feel like they are a burden on others. Expecting them to reach out to you to say “I need help with dinner tonight” is often such a big ask they will not reach out. Instead, say “when would be a good night this week to bring you dinner?” “Do you have a housekeeper you like? I would love to pay to have someone come clean this month.” Or, “When will you be gone — Sarah and I would like to come over and clean.” Drop off a gift card for takeout, show up to take down the Christmas decorations, pay the babysitter they use for some hours to watch the kids. (Side note: Do not send over a babysitter they don’t know or approve of, and don’t arrange a time to go out without their consent. Grief is not on a time-table and you/the griever probably can’t foresee when they will feel up to going out.)
- DON’T recommend stuff to fix it. That book, that ministry, and that support group are probably excellent resources, but immediate recommendations can communicate you are anxious for your hurting person to be “ok” again. Instead, communicate you are willing to sit with/ache with/listen to your hurting friend for as long as they want. Additionally, from a practical standpoint, it’s not usually fruitful to attend a recovery ministry or read a self-help book during the initial period of shock after a loss. Tim and I do often recommend the GriefShare or Shift ministries — usually a year or more after a loss occurs.
On the other hand, here are some constructive or thoughtful things TO DO for your grieving friend:
- DO: Put the loss on your calendar. Text again in a month, in 6 months, in a year to tell the person you are praying for or thinking about them. I typically text something along the lines of “I put September 15th on my calendar because it was one month from the day you lost your Dad/miscarried/found out about the cancer/etc.
- DO: Speak the loss out loud, and be specific. Euphemisms can feel offensive when your life has been ravaged by loss. While it may feel awkward or vulnerable to be specific, remember that many people won’t be brave enough to say much of substance. So make sure you are in a one-on-one conversation and muster the courage to ask a specific question, and to say the name of the person who passed away.
- DO: When you think of their loss, reach out (without expecting something in return). Text, leave a voicemail, send a note. My personal favorite is a random porch drop. Leave her a cup of coffee ‘her way,’ a Sonic drink, or a bouquet of flowers on the porch. Don’t ring the doorbell. Just text and say it’s you who dropped it because you love her. A few years ago I had a friend who called me no less than ten times after the loss of a family friend. I never picked up. (I never listened to the voicemails, even). But later I told her how loved I felt that she kept reaching out to check on me. Knowing your loss is not forgotten is significant. If you have the thought to do something, do it.
- DO: Say something, say anything. Saying something imperfectly is SO SO much better than saying nothing at all. Maybe preface with “I don’t really know what to say.” If you say something and feel it might not have gone over well, apologize. “I’m sorry, that was awkward. I really want to say something meaningful but I am struggling with my words.”
The heart behind all of these ideas is to reach out so someone who is hurting doesn’t experience the double wound of loss and then isolation. Don’t try and fix them with words or resources. Don’t forget them. Don’t retreat because you are scared and unknowing what to say. Tell the truth. And come to think of it, aren’t these things true in every aspect of life and friendship?
Are you experiencing a loss, or have you walked through loss in the past? What are the best and worst things people said to you?