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Understanding and Helping Those Who Are Grieving

on October 3, 2014

Several family members and friends have passed away in recent days and months and I have watched as the individuals left behind have dealt with their grief. I have been aware once again that we, as the body of Christ, don’t really have much understanding about how to help those who are in the midst of grief and we are ill-equipped to stand in this area of service. There are some commonalities but each journey is a very individual one and a very solitary one. Since we have all experienced grief at some time in our lives, you’d think we would have a greater compassion when we see it happen to someone else. We forget too easily what it was like.

When I became a widow, many things were said to me that were very inappropriate. They may have been well-intentioned but were so deeply hurtful that I wrote about the things you should never say to someone who is grieving. I have shared it with others, particularly widows. They understand every bit of this. Parents who have lost children also understand. The loss of a spouse and the loss of a young child will affect every single activity and every single decision you will make for a very long time. While every grief is painful, others do not bring such a drastic change to your life.

The grief of losing your spouse is different than any other type of grief. The Lord has shown me that this is because of the one flesh union. It is a mystery in life and it is a mystery in death. There is a ripping apart of the one flesh and for me it was spiritually, emotionally and even physically painful, the most painful thing I have ever endured.

We honestly must realize that many of the things we say to try to cheer the grieving person sound just awful and are often offensive to the one that is hurting. It shows our ignorance in how to truly help them. I have been there, too, and have said many of the trite things we all say thinking that saying anything is better than nothing.  I have spoken when I should have just shut my mouth. This is also not the time to preach to them about their attitude or tell them that they just need to trust God or have more faith. As much as that may be true, I have found it is actually best to say very little. Just be there to listen and to cry along with them. Saying things like I am sorry and I understand, only if you do, are all that is necessary. The rest only hurts beyond your comprehension. It is seen as more cruelty being heaped on the one who has already been dealt the cruelest blow life has to offer.

I would like to share my thoughts regarding things not to say to help you to better understand the frame of mind in which the grieving person is living. It is my prayer that this will help you to truly minister to the one who is devastated by the loss of a loved one.

  1. Do not say “it will get better” or “it will be better.” To the grieving person, nothing in their life will ever be better without their loved one. Life will never be the same. It will just go on. It is beyond their comprehension and their level of acceptance to believe that life will ever have meaning again let alone be better. It will merely be an existence. In truth, their life will not be better, it will just be different. That doesn’t mean that joy will not enter their life again at some point but they are not able to receive it now. Don’t try to rush this. You will only come up against a strong and often angry resistance.   It is best to stay quiet.
  1. Do not say “God must have needed him/her,” or “God wanted another angel” or “it was God’s will.” This is actually incorrect theology and it makes absolutely no sense to the one who is grieving. They are the ones who need their loved one. They are already questioning God regarding what seems like the ultimate cruelty to allow the one they needed so much in their life to be taken away. Any reference to this will only serve to drive them away from the One who can offer the greatest comfort. Understand that not everything that happens to us is God’s will. It is, rather, for one reason or another, what God allows. Please hear me. This Is Not Comforting! Keep your mouth quiet. Additionally, absolutely do not ever, ever, ever say that God needed their loved one more than they did.
  1. Do not say “God has another plan for you.” This is not the time to be able to receive that nor may it ever be received. Why was God’s plan to keep them together with their loved one not a good enough plan? Realize that the grieving person most likely is still dealing with the denial stage of their grief and may be for a very long time. Anything you say takes their loved one further and further away from them. It will only incite anger toward you. Above all, never tell a widow they’ll be able to marry again or a mother that she’ll have or even now has other children. People are not replaceable. This comment could get you a Mt. Vesuvius kind of reaction. It is best to keep your mouth shut.
  1. Do not say “but we need you here” or “you don’t mean that” when you hear the grieving person say they wish to die. It does not mean they are suicidal. It just means that they cannot think about another day here without their loved one much less a month, a year and certainly not years. It’s not that they don’t love the rest of their family and friends; it’s just that the grief is so strong, the sense of loss is so great and the misery is so overwhelming that all they can think about is escape and being reunited with the one they have lost, the one their heart longs for. It is not a part of their thinking right now to consider others here in this life. That will come later but it does not help in the present to hear about it. Once again, keep your mouth quiet. Most of this kind of talk is really just venting.
  1. Do not ask the grieving person how they are unless you expect to hear that they are not doing well. It is important to the grieving person to be able to express the truth about how they really are. Do not argue or contradict that. It seems like the natural thing to do so but once again, unless you can say that you understand or that you are sorry, don’t say anything. The grieving process takes a long time. It won’t be over after the funeral, after the first month, or even after the first year. Realize that the stronger the love is, the stronger the grief will be, and often the longer it will last.
  1. Do not say “but I am here” or “we are here” when the grieving person states that they are all alone. They are feeling alone, abandoned, forsaken, unloved, uncared for, overwhelmed, lost, cast adrift and even if there was a crowd of 5000 people around them they would still feel all of those things. Realize that everything in their life has been completely overturned and disrupted. Most of the time there is nothing about their life now that is recognizable. You may “be there” but the truth is, you have your own life as do children, family and other friends. There are many empty hours spent alone that serve to punctuate that sense of abandonment.
  1. Do not tell or convey to the grieving person in any way that they shouldn’t cry or aren’t allowed to cry while they are with you today. If you are uncomfortable with the tears, then elect someone else to be their companion. The truth is one can never predict what may or may not trigger the tears. When they come, often it is a deluge and it is uncontrollable. The tears will still be forthcoming long after the world thinks they should be finished grieving.
  1. Do not be surprised by their expression of anger. They may express anger toward God, toward you or others for having a seemingly normal life when theirs is not. Sometimes anger may even be expressed toward their loved one for dying. These are all normal reactions and are a part of the grief process. Your job is NOT to react but to remain loving and gentle toward the one who is so distraught. Be as understanding as possible, be non-condemning, non-judgmental and keep your mouth quiet when things they say seem irrational. The truth is that keeping all of these feelings inside is far more harmful to the individual than expressing them would seem to be.

There are some things that you can do to extend your sympathy and your concern for the one who is grieving.

  1. Do stand alongside them, pray for them, hug them, sit with them, listen to them, extend your love to them, call or visit, invite or take them out often. You need to be the one to initiate the contact and do keep trying when they say ‘No.’ The grieving person is finding day to day existence difficult, even impossible, so will not be eager to set up a social calendar. Don’t expect two-way conversation, often the quietness is all they need. The grieving person doesn’t want to talk anyway except about their loved one or their loneliness. Over the course of time, be prepared to hear the same stories again and again and again. It is an important part of grief to keep the memories alive. Their thoughts are always on their loved ones and their hearts are always longing for them. Often others seem to want to act as if their loved one never existed. This is such thoughtless cruelty so please listen.
  1. Do realize that it is difficult for the grieving person to be anywhere. It is hard to be at home, hard to be away from home, hard to drive down the same streets, hard to go to the same places, hard to go to the places they had dreamed of or spoken of seeing together, hard to be a part of life, impossible to think of the future because for them life has died. For a long period of time, nothing will take on any meaning. It is merely a struggle to exist. Most days it will be a struggle to even get out of bed, get dressed and find any normalcy at all in their day. They will experience restlessness at being out among people that they can’t explain. They just want to run away from everything and yet there is nowhere to run. Everything in their path and in their circumstances will remind them of their loss and unhappiness. Be prepared for tears and have tissues and a sincere hug handy.
  1. I plead with you and encourage you that you should remember to pray, pray, pray often for the one who is grieving. It cannot be emphasized enough. Prayer is the only thing that will sustain a person who is deep in grief. Very likely, that person is struggling to pray at all themselves. This is not because they have stopped loving God. Their faith has been shaken; they are still feeling numb. Their level of concentration is just not there. It’s like being in a coma but still being awake and moving. They will need to be carried along by the prayers of others for quite a long time. Pray that the Lord will bless them, hold them close to His heart, sustain them, comfort them, heal them, give them hope and purpose once again, and restore unto them a spirit of joy in exchange for the spirit of heaviness. Once you commit to pray, keep on praying until the Lord tells you it is all right to stop. Be prepared to carry this commitment for years, as that may be necessary.
  1. Do remember to be sensitive all of the time. If your friend has been widowed, they are no longer a part of a couple in an environment and a lifestyle that was filled with couples. Often the widowed person is seen as a fifth wheel, a threat to those who are coupled, may not have single friends or want to be a part of the singleness that has been thrust upon them, and will not be interested in making new friends at this time. If your friend has lost a child, don’t be surprised if they have difficulty being around children or even the parents of children for a period of time. It all seems too unfamiliar and takes too much energy to try to find a place to belong when all they want is to have their life back. They simply want anything that feels at least a little normal in a world where nothing will ever be normal again.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to just be available, to be a friend. It may prove to be the toughest test of friendship you will ever have. We are commanded by our Lord to bear one another’s burdens in love and I can promise you that this command will never be more of a reality or a stronger test of love for you than when you are standing with a friend in their deepest grief. Certainly, you will become impatient often and feel you are not up to the task. Please do not let that dissuade you. Please do not avoid them or walk away from your friendship at this time because it seems too hard to be involved. Seek the Lord to give you strength to be their friend at this crucial time of need. You have no idea what offering that lifeline will produce.

Thank you for caring enough to read this. I hope it has stirred a response in you and will help you to be better equipped to extend the love of the Lord to those who are hurting. I pray that the Lord will bless you as you extend yourself, your love and your concern to those who are grieving.

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One response to “Understanding and Helping Those Who Are Grieving

  1. Marissa says:

    Thank you for writing this, Patty. You’re absolutely right. Those of us in the Body that haven’t experienced this are clueless as to help the grieving person. We say things thinking they will help when they really do more damage than good. Thank you for explaining to us what to say and what not to say. Blessings!

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