This year I have learned more about grief than I have before in my life. Before this year, I hadn’t experienced the death of someone close to me, so I didn’t understand grief on an experiential level. But a few years before, I walked with a friend through some deaths in her family, and I slowly began to learn some things about grief – things which have become even more real this year in my own family heartaches.
If you’re like I was before all this, other people’s grief may make you uncomfortable. I get it. It feels awkward. You’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say at all – especially if they start crying. You want to help, but you also might feel like running away.
One thing I have learned about grief, even within my own family, is that everyone handles it differently. What I’m about to share might not be the best fit for everyone. But I hope that it might be helpful for some, even if it’s just to know where I’m at in the process of grieving.
The other thing to keep in mind is that we shouldn’t feel like we have to carry everyone’s grief. That would be too much. Certainly we can show empathy and love towards acquaintances on social media or at church who are grieving. But walking down the broken road with someone is usually reserved for those with whom we are close.
So how do we hold each other’s brokenness and grow in love through the grieving process? Here are a few things I’m learning:
- Your presence is healing.
I think what we want most of all in our grief is to know we’re not alone. We need to be close to one another when our hearts are breaking – even if we’re not directly talking about the grief.
The day my grandma died, my family spent the evening together, sharing dinner, talking, and just being present with each other – which is what we needed in our communal grief.
There comes a time when we do need to be alone to process, but it should be balanced with time spent with our loved ones – if even to remind us to cherish the relationships we still have here on earth.
2. Ask more specific questions.
Asking “how are you” is our automatic response, but we probably already know the other person isn’t doing great, even if they say they are. In the case of my dad, who is now in a memory care facility for quickly progressing dementia, it’s difficult to hear the question, “How’s your dad?” regularly, because I have to say each time, “He’s not doing well” or “He’s getting worse.”
I love that people care enough to want to know about my dad and how I’m doing with it, though. And there are many days when I’m fine to talk about it. But there are more difficult days when I just can’t.
So maybe it would be better to ask the question – regarding any grief – “Do you want to talk about it right now?” Sometimes we do need to talk about it, but we don’t want to come across as a burden. So hearing that question frees us up to say, “Yes, that would be great.”
And if we don’t want to talk about it, we can simply answer that question with a “Not right now, but thanks for checking in with me about it.” That way we also don’t shut out our friends from asking about it in the future.
Another good question to ask might be, “What have you been processing lately?” or “How has the grief been affecting you recently?” This acknowledges that we all handle grief differently and that we go through stages of it at different times.
3. Give permission for tears.
Crying in front of someone else might be one of the most vulnerable things for us to experience, and most of us hate it. We usually turn away and start apologizing for our tears, but in my experience, the most beautiful response to that is when my friend draws me close, holds me in a tight hug, and says, “Don’t apologize.”
When they validate the healing power of our tears, it lets them flow more freely, and some of our burden is absorbed as they hold on to us. I know some people don’t like hugs or feel like that makes it more awkward, but I believe God created us as humans to need that physical touch to alleviate our emotional suffering.
More than anything, please don’t say, “Don’t cry. It’ll be all right,” because we do need to cry, and in that moment it’s not all right. Just allow the grief to be present and don’t try to push it away quickly out of discomfort. Grab the tissue box, hug tightly, and let them know you’re there and that you love them.
4. When your words fail, God’s Word never does.
Sometimes we ache so much for a friend whose loved one is suffering or has died, that any words we say feel trite or hollow. But saying something is better than saying nothing, even if the words don’t feel like enough.
Hearing someone say, “I’m praying for you,” or give me a Bible verse brings even more comfort, because I know that God’s Word is true and unchanging. I know that their prayers will be answered, and I know that Christ’s comfort will go beyond human comfort. And I know that I need the reminders of Scripture when my grief-weary brain can’t find them myself.
So be brave and say something, even if it’s, “Wow. I wish I had the words to say how sad I am for you.” The fact that you took the time to express care and empathy goes a long way for the one who is grieving.
5. Don’t forget that the grieving process continues for a long time.
In the first few weeks and month after someone dies, there’s an outpouring of sympathy, cards, flowers, and food. And then everyone’s lives move on and they forget. But we don’t. We carry the weight of that sorrow around for much longer.
And it manifests itself in different ways at different times. Fatigue. Headaches. Other physical illnesses. A song or memory that suddenly brings tears. A holiday or milestone without them. Something that happens that you wish could be shared with them. And for those who have a loved one with dementia, the grief is on-going as more and more of that person slips away from us every day.
So don’t forget to check in with your friend as the months and years go on. Maybe bring them a rose or some flowers on the anniversary of the death – or treat them to some kind of pampering – or just set aside some time to talk about sweet memories of their loved one. Just because we learn to live with the ache doesn’t mean it ever fully goes away because our love for them still carries on.
There is still so much I have to learn about the grieving process. I’m not an expert – I haven’t been to counseling (although that might be a good idea) – I haven’t read all the books about it. But these are the things I’ve learned so far, and they may be helpful to you. If you have learned otherwise or handle grief differently, that’s completely okay. I’d love to know what has been helpful and unhelpful for you as well.
But through the process, may we be gentle with each other and continue to show the love that we most need in times of brokenness and heartache. It may be a slow road, but if we walk it together and carry each other’s burdens, it will make it that much more bearable.