What do you say?

Suppose, for a minute, that you are about to walk into a room full of grieving people. Imagine that you’re going to enter a situation sort of similar to speed-dating, where you’ll go through a line and come face-to-face with each grieving individual. These people are in different stages and situations of grief… some people mourn for friends or coworkers, some grieve the loss of family members. Some miss people who have been gone for years while others haven’t had time to process reality since the passing of their loved one. Some cry because that one with whom they shared so much life has gone on without them. Others weep that their loved one will never have the opportunity to grow up or grow old.

What do you say to someone who has fallen deep into the trenches of this grief; this sick, sad, terrible thing that is in one breath so natural and in another so offensive to everything? How would you prepare to walk into this place, to meet these people?

Certainly there are things that you can say, or not say, that could be helpful. There are things you could do, or not do, that might help or comfort. There are also things that could be said or done that might poke like a needle or cut like a knife. There’s no formula. There’s no “right” or “wrong.” Because of that, there’s often this inevitable awkwardness—I know this is hard, but I have no idea what to say to you, nothing could possibly be enough. Sometimes, before we have a chance to run anything through the appropriateness filters, something insensitive tumbles out, or we say nothing, but there’s this incredible emptiness between us.

And what if you found yourself on the other side of this situation? What if you were one of those grieving people, standing at the front of that line to receive whatever each person has to say or do? You can see the sadness in their eyes, you see their lips moving but can you hear anything they’re saying? You smell a garden of fragrances and maybe you feel the arms of strangers encapsulate you.

How do you answer them? What do you say to each of those people who want to help so badly? How do you ease the awkward? Is there any way to acknowledge the grief of someone who is also grieving your loved one’s passing?

I cannot speak for you, or know what you have done or will do in those situations. I won’t try to give answers for every grieving person, because I am only one. To be completely honest, I’m not even sure I know what I want to hear. Every person is different, every loss is different, the experience of grief is different for every person in each loss. I can, however, offer my perspective in words that have helped me through my current understanding of my own loss and grief.

When I lost my 25-year-old husband in February of 2016, we were in a hospital. The only person to whom I wanted to talk about all of this was lying in a bed from which he would never get up. There were so many people around us, wanting to bring comfort. There were so many who did really helpful and practical things and whose presence or prayers or distant solidarity will never be forgotten. In the weeks that followed, the messages, cards and help did not stop coming.

I want to tell you something that may or may not take some pressure off of you if you’re reading this and were one of those people: I don’t remember anything that anyone did that was wrong. When you showed up for me, whether in that hospital or away from it, near or far, from then until now, your thoughtfulness and prayers have blessed my soul.

Nancy Guthrie’s firstborn, Hope, was diagnosed with Zellweger Syndrome at birth and lived only six months. Her second born, Gabriel, was also diagnosed with Zellweger Syndrome and they lost him after another six months. I had the opportunity to hear her speak last Summer, and have greatly benefited from one of her writings, “What Grieving People Wish You Knew.” At the conference, I held in my hands the first chapter of her book. I’ve never been an enthusiastic reader, but I devoured that chapter with raining tears over the next hour. While I was reading, I thought about my own recent losses and what others had done for me, but even more about how baffled I was that I did not know what to say to others. I wanted to help, I wanted to be a part of the process of the healing. I expected myself to know the right way to do things. This quote helped me a great deal:

It’s not up to you to say something that answers the significant questions they are asking. Those take some time to work through… It’s not up to you to recommend the book they need to read, the counselor they need to see, the drug they need to take. You don’t have to provide for them a recommended framework for thinking and feeling their way through their loss. Really, you just have to show up and say very little except maybe…”This sucks.” (Guthrie, 15).

I recently received advice to, “walk into this with grace.” And that, more than anything else, is helping me frame the two-way street of mourning with each other. Extra grace toward others is vital when we approach someone who’s grieving (no matter how they appear to be handling the situation, or how evident their faith or trust in God’s promises). Extra grace with each other is important when we’re the one grieving and well meaning people say comments that unintentionally strike a cord within us. Extra grace is needed when it’s been almost a year, or two years, or twenty-five years and we feel like we should be looking past this by now. I can’t assume that I know what’s going on inside of someone who is grieving, that I understand it or have the answers. It’s more than beneficial to me to let go of any expectations I have for myself in my own process of grief. No one goes through this the same way, and that is okay.

I could give you a list of the most unhelpful things that were said or done, those I tried to receive graciously and sometimes failed to be kind about… but I think it would be more constructive to mention some of the things that helped. They may not be sweet for everyone in every stage, but for me, in the stages they were given, God used them for such good in my heart and soul.

Helpful things that people have said to me:

  • “I’m so sorry”
  • “You’re not alone”
  • “Your grief for Eric is great because your love for him is deep”
  • “I miss Eric too” or “What was Eric like?”
  • “I’ll still be praying long after the funeral” (and then they do it)
  • “God’s light is shining through you,” or “God is glorified through you”
  • Months after the funeral:
    • “It’s ok to smile. You’re not grieving poorly if you smile sometimes.”
    • “I keep Eric’s picture on my fridge and pray for you often.”
    • Encouragement on holidays, anniversaries or “special” unmarked days
  • Written in cards:
    • “Please don’t feel the need to send a thank you.”
    • Contact information and “if you want to talk, I am just a text/phone call away”
    • Stories about Eric’s impact in the sender’s life or pictures of him

*  It is still so comforting to hear others use Eric’s name. That shows care more than nearly anything could. I’m so grateful to those who have listened to me process stories about Eric and have even repeated his name to me.

Helpful things that people have done for me:

  • Presence at Eric’s funeral
  • Listening Ears
  • Prayers (I cannot underestimate the power of prayer!)
  • Prayer meetings – Matthew 18:20
  • Cards with handwritten notes
  • Gift packages, especially ones with items for my children
  • Financial help and gift cards to ease the practical burdens
  • Offers to watch my children on a specific date and time
  • Meals, especially ones that considered my nutrition preferences and the ages of my children
  • “Girl Time” when they acknowledged my loss and then we laughed together
  • Shedding tears together; when they let me cry with them
  • When people also reached out to Eric’s other family members

*For nearly a year, my children and I have been so blessed to live with my parents and sister. Their daily support for each of us—hugs, tears, commiseration, laughter, reminiscing, practical care and grace on good days and tough spots—has been incredible.

It is my hope that some of these things that helped me will help you as you try to mourn with those who mourn.

Featured photo by Freddy Castro.


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