Two years ago, I endured what was, hands down, the most painful season of my life. After a series of long-term, compounding health issues, my dad died suddenly.
My experience of grief shaped me in profound ways that I am still discovering, but one of the things that has come most clearly out my grief is the desire to see others grieved with well. When comforting a grieving friend, everyone has good intentions. Unfortunately, those good intentions often don’t translate to loving, helpful action. And when you’re grieving, you don’t have the energy to see through to good intentions.
So, as I reflect on my own experience of loss, here are a few things you can do for a friend who has lost someone they love deeply.
Don’t try to fix it.
I remember standing in line at my dad’s visitation and enduring an endless string of well-intentioned one liners. Classics like “He’s in a better place” and “You’ll see him again someday.”
Then a total stranger came up and said something completely different that stuck with me: “It doesn’t get better. It gets different.”
Here is what was so impactful about that statement: She wasn’t trying to fix anything.
Most of the things we say to a grieving friend attempt to smooth over their pain. Grief can’t be fixed or smoothed over. It has to be endured and, in some sense, it never goes away. It gets different. Less pervasive. Less overwhelming. But it’s always there because the person we lost is not.
Whatever you say to a grieving friend, make sure it doesn’t try to fix their grief.
Do something tangible and simple.
There was one day in the weeks that followed my dad’s death that felt particularly overwhelming.
I was exhausted, indescribably sad and hurting in ways I didn’t know were possible. And then a package came in the mail. The teens that I worked with at the time had made me cards and sent gift cards to cover meals. I could feel their love in this simple expression, and it gave me just enough energy to go on.
Unless they’re particularly profound or horrible, the things we say to our grieving friends won’t be remembered. What will be remembered are the tangible acts of love we do for them: meals, cards, showing up. So if you’re lost for words, don’t say anything. Just do something simple.
The latte you bring them may just sit coldly on the table, but they’ll feel your love in the action. That love is the best thing you have to offer them.
Ask about the person they lost.
After my dad’s visitation, my wife and I went to dinner with some friends. After a few minutes, the conversation lulled and that “what can we possible say” silence set in. Then my friend said the best thing anyone could have in that moment: “Tell me about your dad.”
Talking to a grieving friend can feel like walking through a mine field. You don’t want say something that will trigger a fresh wave of grief or hurt the person because you said the wrong thing. This, almost always, seems to result in avoiding mentioning the loved one who was lost. This can actually be the worst thing for someone who is grieving.
When you’ve lost someone, you want to hold on to them in any way you can. Often this is through talking about them to others. It’s incredibly comforting, even for just a moment, to share about the person you lost. Give your friend the opportunity to do so.
Be slow to compare.
In the wake of losing my dad, I was flooded with conversations about my loss, most of which I don’t remember at all. What I do remember is a theme: comparison.
Many people said things like, “I know how you feel, I lost an uncle,” or “I felt the same way when my boyfriend broke up with me.” This was well-intentioned, but usually pretty unhelpful.
When we bring up our own experience with grief to a friend who has lost someone, we’re shooting for empathy.
Unfortunately, what we often end up doing is minimizing the uniqueness of their loss. Every grief is different because every person and relationship lost is different.
If you want to show empathy without comparing, try to identify the feelings you felt in your grief and ask your friend how they’re handling those same feelings. This simple act says, “You’re not alone” while avoiding comparing losses.
Don’t have expectations for their grief.
Perhaps the greatest act of love I received in my grief came from how my wife walked with me. As grief hit me and I responded with everything from anger, to numbness, to tears, my wife sat with me uncritically. She never questioned how I was responding. She was just sad with me, which is all I needed from her.
Because we care deeply about our grieving friends, we often impose our expectations on their grief.
We want it to be healthy, so we say things like, “Don’t be so angry” or “You shouldn’t say things like that.” When we do this, we can actually make things worse. There’s no right way to grieve.
Grief hits everyone differently, and each person will react to it in their own way. As long as they’re not hurting themselves or others, we need to let our friends grieve in their own way.
Let the God-talk come from your friend, not you.
Seriously. I know this one sounds strange, but it’s true. Grief makes us feel small and helpless, so we often try to invoke God to make us—and the person grieving—feel more in control. Often times though, the things we say about God can deeply wound our grieving friends.
You don’t know what that person is feeling about God in that moment, and imposing your beliefs, even if it’s just quoting scripture, can cause anger, confusion and long-term spiritual baggage. If you want that person to feel God’s presence, be the hands and feet of that love.