Tuesday, May 18, 2004

How to Help Your Grieving Friend, Part #1

[This is the first of two columns I've just submitted to the editor at the Community Press newspaper, for which I write a column. I hope you find it helpful.]

How do we help friends who are grieving?

Over the course of the years, I've learned some important basic lessons about this, both from personal experience and from my reading of the Bible.

If you have a friend who is grieving, whether over the death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss, or a move that has taken them many miles from familiar faces and places, they can use your help. Fortunately, the principles I've discovered can be used in face-to-face conversations, over the telephone, and even, I have learned, in internet instant messaging. So, to help you help your grieving friend, here are three of those lessons I've learned. In my next column, I'll share four more such lessons.

First and most importantly, listen to your friend. Frequently, whether it's because of our own discomfort or a penchant for wanting to "fix things," we can go to our grieving friends and shower them with torrents of consoling words. But what grieving people most need is to be listened to. Their pain and grief need to be acknowledged.

In the Old Testament book of Job, a man is aggrieved when he loses first, all his sources of wealth and then, all of his children in a natural disaster. Three friends come to visit Job (pronounced with a long "o"). One scholar has pointed out that the friends do something very wise at first. They let Job "vent," allowing him to give full expression to his agony, his questions, his anger. Then, they make a mistake: They open their mouths. My biggest mistakes in life and in trying to help hurting people, have never come from listening. They've always come from talking.

Second, don't try to talk people out of their grief. Grief is something which, over time, follows a more or less natural course. Sometimes more time and sometimes less is required. It depends on the person, their level of faith, and their particular grief. You can't truncate grief with words.

Some people think that they need to give the aggrieved person a "pep talk." But such talks are really designed more to make the talker feel they've done a good turn than to do any real good for anyone else. A woman's husband died. At the funeral home viewing, a man decided to "cheer her up." He said, "I know you feel bad now. But you'll get over it. My wife died. But I immediately went out and found another wife. You can find another husband." That's a true story and it's truly awful.

Thirdly, don't try to explain what you don't understand. When people grieve over their losses, they wonder, as all of us do, why this has happened. The person who wants to help the friend who is asking this question must resist the temptation to answer it. In all honesty, your friend doesn't want to have a rational explanation anyway. They simply want to be able to say, "This isn't fair!"

And it isn't fair. Life often isn't fair. At the end of Job's forty-two chapters, we're left with this answer to the question of why grief befalls us: We live in a world where bad things happen. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that bad things rain on the good and the evil alike. Why that is so, no one living on this planet is wise enough to say. Only God knows the answer to the question of why and you don't need to play God by pretending to have that answer.

I'll present the other basic lessons I've learned for helping your grieving friends in my next column.

No comments: