“‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.'” Matthew 5:4
A friend in times of grief
This past week, three St. Andrew’s families lost loved ones suddenly and unexpectedly. Whenever a friend or even an acquaintance experiences such a loss most people instinctively want to comfort them—they deliver food or send cards or offer a hug. Some people are particularly gifted in offering comfort. Since arriving at St. Andrew’s, I have noticed that our congregation has both men and women who are able to approach a person in grief with extraordinary grace and compassion. They know the right gestures, they have good timing, and their sincere compassion says “you’re not alone.” Sometimes that kind of giftedness is a consequence of having suffered their own losses.
However, there are also people who do not know what to do or say in the face of death or loss. Those people care too; they also want to offer comfort, they just don’t know how or don’t feel confident under the circumstances. If you are one of those people who find yourself at a loss in those moments, I understand the feeling. For what it is worth, I can offer some of what I have learned in ministry; insight that I gained through making mistakes and trying again. Here, in a nutshell, are a few things that I have learned:
First, don’t try to take away their pain. This is the most common cause of saying the wrong thing to a grieving person. Statements like “at least he is no longer suffering,” or “at least you had that last year together,” can come across as “come on now, it’s not that bad.” We can never take someone’s pain away. But we can sit with them as they learn how to live with it.
Second, be aware of how their loss is affecting you. If you have had a significant loss in your life, it is possible that the memory of that loss can be triggered by other losses, even if the person wasn’t close. You might find yourself feeling anxious or restless. That is a normal response and a sign you might need to talk with someone yourself. Always follow the oxygen mask rule: take care of yourself first, then help others. They will appreciate it.
Third, let them talk. Grief can feel like walking around in a fog. The person’s thoughts can wander and trail off, circle around and come back again. Don’t try to organize their thinking, give them good advice, or get them back on track. Let them lead the conversation even if they don’t know where they are going. Just listening will go a long way toward clearing the fog.
Fourth, trust God. When I worked as a chaplain, I would pray before going into a patient’s room “may they meet Your Holy Spirit in me.” Then I would focus on setting aside my thoughts and concerns and letting God’s Spirit direct things. God is the great healer and the best thing we can ever do for someone is try to be a channel for that healing. Sometimes our only job is to step out of the way.
Finally, the best advice I ever received was from a fellow chaplain who said of the patients we were ministering to: “remember, they don’t want you to fix them, they want you to be with them.” Sometimes it can feel like we should do something for the person who is grieving. But grief is a process that can’t be rushed or pushed or even facilitated. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the gift of just being present as they go through their difficult time. The presence of loving friends can make a huge difference in how someone absorbs the shock of the loss of their loved one.
Know that you make a difference!