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 seven of those 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." 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.
Lesson four is this: Let your friend be angry with God. A deeply faithful Christian man whose granddaughter had recently died told me, "Sometimes I get angry with God. I know it's horrible; but it's true." I assured him that what he was feeling wasn't horrible. I reminded him of such people in the Bible as David and Job, who always believed in God, but also got angry with God when dealing with grief or the threat of death. And I told the grieving grandfather, "The fact that you're angry with God proves your faith in God. You would never be angry with someone you didn't think was there."
Most of the time, when we respond to people's anger, no matter its source, with condemnation, it only makes them dig in their heels. God says in Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Letting your friend get angry with God will prevent their anger from becoming an ongoing feature in their life.
Lesson five: Don't avoid talking about your grieving friend's loss. Often, friends fear that if they do so, they'll only make their friends feel sadder. But a grieving friend already is sad and if it seems natural to mention a friend's dead loved one, for example, or if your friend mentions that person, you should be willing to talk about them as well.
A woman once told me, "My friends avoid speaking of my late husband like a plague. What they don't seem to understand is that when they do that, it makes me feel as though they think he was unimportant or that they want to pretend he was never there." Through the years, I have heard that grieving woman's words echoed by other grieving people. You honor your friend when you're willing to discuss with them the people or circumstances they grieve.
Lesson six: Pray for your friend. You should pray that God will bring them comfort, for sure. But you also should pray that God will use you as a conduit for the blessings you want your friend to receive. Whenever I visit people who are dealing with grief, I always ask God to fill me with His Holy Spirit, allowing God's love for my friend to flow through me. Jesus says that the world will know Him when His love is visible in us. Pray that God will love your friend through you.
Finally, if you're a follower of Jesus, your friend will probably eventually want to know what has allowed you to be so helpful to them. You can honestly say that it isn't you who have been helpful, that you have prayed over every step you took with them and that God has guided you. You can tell them that you belong to an eternal God Who has destroyed the power of death and that anyone who trustingly follows Jesus Christ has hope beyond the grave. At the right time, after you've lovingly taken the journey of grief with your friend, that will come as very good news.
[This piece distills two columns I wrote five years ago for The Community Journal, a suburban Cincinnati newspaper. I presented this earlier today at two gatherings, the women's group of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church and the Hocking County Cancer Support Group. This has appeared in various incarnations on the blog.]