How to Actually Help a Friend Who's Grieving
Hint: There are some things you shouldn't say.
Some grief isn’t Facebook-appropriate. It doesn’t wear black or take personal days.
When a friend is dealing with private grief, we feel helpless. Should we distract them with laughter? Open the door for tears? Pretend everything is fine? We want to do something to relieve their suffering, so we give them an awkward side hug at church or ask them how they are.
The year 2015 was the hardest of my life. The majority of the year, I suffered quietly. I confided in a few close friends, but my grief was complicated and private. I longed for the comfort of the Body but instead I went to church with a forced smile and left as quickly as I could—worried that if I lingered too long it might all spill out. I thank God for these months of sole dependence on Him, but they were hard.
As my trial became more concrete, I was able to share my pain with others. It wasn’t easy to address, and some friends still haven’t said a word to me about it. I understand.
I remember seeing one of my high school students after news about my divorce became public. He couldn’t make eye contact. I knew he cared about me but I also knew there was no easy way to show that concern. Right before I moved back to California, that same student came by my apartment and handed me a handwritten letter and a jar of cookie dough. It was so humbling—and exactly what I needed.
God knows what we need. Over the past six months, I have received comfort in the form of care packages from friends. I call them “grief survival kits.” These items and letters spoke love directly to my heart. They were personal, took into consideration my interests and situation and they were given without expectation of praise. They were gifts of pure grace.
I want to encourage you with some practical suggestions for how to love your grieving friends.
Recognize That People Grieve Differently
Some would prefer an email to a hug. Others need to process their grief by talking about it. The fact that people grieve differently more often leads us to do nothing than something. We don’t want to mess up, so we don’t even make an attempt to comfort.
I think this is the wrong response. Though people have said insensitive things to me, I still knew they loved me. And in those moments, I recalled times that I too fumbled around at comfort, trying to speak love to a hurting friend when they really needed silence.
We should do something rather nothing, but our attempts at comfort should also be as informed as possible. Do they like physical touch? Have they mentioned a favorite place to eat or a film they’ve been wanting to see? Pray for sensitivity and wisdom. Some people just need someone to sit with them in silence. Don’t try to fill that silence. Leave the door open for them to express their grief.
Do Not Give in Order to Receive
Grievers need freedom to be full-time receivers.
I have a stack of unanswered letters on my desk. This is not normal for me. But instead of being overwhelmed by stress or guilt I just feel loved. I can’t answer every note I receive—and that’s OK. In fact, it’s a lot like the Gospel. God gave us Christ when we were still sinners, when there was no service project on earth big enough for us to pay Him back. 2 Corinthians 9 reminds us of the privilege it is to give to those in need, and I think this includes those who grieve:
“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the Gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.”
Pray for Them
A friend from Bible study recently told me: “You can text me any time of night and I will pray for you.” I know people are praying for me. I see evidence of it in the peace that washes over me in moments when I used to only feel despair. I know they are praying for me because they tell me they are. Because they have grabbed my hands in the hallways at church and over coffee and scones. Because they have asked: “How can I pray for you?”
Prayer should never be viewed as a lesser ministry. If you see someone grieving, pray over them right then and there. Or pray for them on your own when God brings them to mind. Be like Epaphras in Colossians 4, “always struggling” in prayer for those who grieve that they may “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”
Comfort as You’ve Been Comforted
Christ teaches us how to comfort others by comforting us in our own pain:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).
How has Christ comforted you? Embody that comfort for others. Text them the verse you hold close during your hardest moments. Take them to the restaurant your friend took you to when you thought you couldn’t get out of bed. One of the reasons we grieve and are comforted is so that we will know how to comfort those who grieve.
Do Your Homework
A friend of mine is going through a heart-breaking divorce right now and I wanted to do something for her. I got on her Facebook page and looked through the TV shows, music and books she’d “liked.” I used this and what I knew about her to create her a “grief survival kit.”
If you’re not sure what to do for someone, ask their spouse or best friend. Stalk them on social media. Use the recipe below for inspiration:
Grief Survival Kit Recipe
– 1 Book
– A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
– A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
– The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
1 Comfort Item
– A coffee mug
– A gift card to their favorite store or restaurant
– A soft blanket
– A board game
– Art supplies
– Psalms by Sandra McCracken
– Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens
– With You Now EP by Ellie Holcomb
Don’t overthink this. Offer what God has given you. What passage has encouraged you lately? Write it out. How has God been faithful to you? Share the story. This is not time to give advice, tell them how to feel or ask a million questions. It’s time to share the hope that is within you and remind them that you love them and are praying for them.