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How to Help a Grieving Friend {The Not So Helpful & the Helpful}

By contributing writer, Ami

Sometimes I think tragedy is the catalyst that compels Christians to function as Jesus intended, that is, one body integrally entwined with petty differences cast aside. When the bottom falls out, believers realize a startling truth— we desperately need each other.

It’s a paradox. Pain and sorrow can create a church that radiates Jesus’ stunning beauty.

I’ve experienced it.

It was a bitterly cold day in January 2013. I arrived at the building for my husband’s funeral. So many things are a blur, but that day is crystal clear. One of the most beautiful contrasts to the staggering weight of grief was how the church rallied as one.

There were guys standing in the snow for hours, directing traffic, helping folks safely inside. These brothers gave sacrificially for me.

Inside, the auditorium was transformed with flowers and pictures of our life together. So masterfully arranged, it was a gorgeous scene. I couldn’t have asked for better.

My church is young, and this was the first death we’d ever faced together, the first funeral for a congregation of mostly 20s and 30s. Everyone served according to their giftings- food, music, programs… And all of this swirled around me, while I functioned in a dense fog.

I could give many more ways people carried me in the early days of grief, and even in the not so early days.

And I’ve come to understand the gift of mercy in an entirely new manner. In tragedy, it’s the merciful that rise like cream to the top. O Christ, your church is beautiful!

how to help a grieving friend - the helpful and the not so helpful!

However, I also experienced some “comfort” that hurt. I know it was well meaning, and I know grief can be an awkward thing.

I know I’ve surely been the “not so helpful” person at times. I’m still growing here as well. It’s just that death has given me a different perspective on counsel, encouragement, and comfort.

I hesitate to share the “not so helpful” list with you, lest it sound angry or bitter, but I think I can. I hope only to equip.

I speak only of my own experiences. People grieve differently, so my thoughts aren’t meant to be comprehensive.

How to help a grieving friend- The Not so Helpful & the Helpful

not helpful 3

“Let me know if you need anything.”

These words drive people raw with grief to insanity! Everything is a blur. They don’t know what they need, or there may be far too many needs to know where to start. It’s a well intended sentiment, but it feels like a cop out.

Rather, take initiative to meet a need. Organize meals, do laundry, make phone calls, create a gift basket, stock them with Kleenexes.

Additionally, some better questions are  “What is something specific I can do for you?” or “What do you need?” These give the opportunity to list a concrete need, however small or ridiculous it is.

“I need some cheap dishes to smash to the floor when I’m angry.”

“I know how you feel” or “I understand.”

No, you don’t. Unless you’ve gone through death you don’t know. Likewise, I couldn’t say to someone who’s experienced divorce, “I know how you feel.”  Again well intended, but your friend might have to exercise every ounce of self-control not to slap you.

“It will get easier.”

While this is true, it may not get easier for a LONG time. And it will probably get harder before it gets easier. These are just difficult words to hear right away.

“Have you turned a corner in your grief?”

It had been about four months after Jon died when I heard this one. I took a deep breath and responded with grace, “No I have not.”

But inside my emotions screamed “What corner? There is no corner!” This one hurt so badly because it made me feel like grief had to be rushed.

There is no timetable. And grief truly does come in cycles. It is ok to be weak. Giving your friend permission to “not be ok” is truly one of the best things you can do for her.

Offering solutions

For me, just talking about the struggle was helpful. But I didn’t always need “fixes.” Sleep with a body pillow, wear his clothes, get a cat. I think my heart just cried out to be told, “I love you, and I’m praying for you.”

Sometimes just letting the person talk (or not talk) is the best help. For a long time I wanted to talk about Jon ALL the time. I’m so thankful for friends who let me.

Don’t press for details.

Let the person decide to whom they feel comfortable sharing details surrounding a loved one’s death. I needed to talk about the night in the ER with people I trusted deeply, but with others it was merely forcing me to relive the most traumatic experience I’ve known.

A few widow specific things:

“I’m glad to see you’re moving on.” Widows don’t move on. We move forward. We choose to live. These words, “Move on,” make us feel as if the death of our husbands was like a break up.

The word “Ms.” Maybe this one isn’t hard for everyone, but I really struggle with this word. Still.

Please still invite us to be a part of events for families and couples.

Going to bed alone was one of the most difficult things for awhile. Sometimes I would sleep on my couch so I wouldn’t feel him not there. Pray for widows at bedtime.

Comparing widowhood to being a single adult is a challenging thing to hear. Yes, I’m single again, but it’s a vastly different singleness.

Writing the “not so helpfuls” is a difficult thing, so let’s transition back to the beautiful. 

HelpfulThe Helpful

Simple Words

“I’m praying for you.”

“It’s ok to cry.”

If there need to be words, let them be born out of sincerity.

Cards and messages

I received hundreds of cards. They kept coming for several months. I think it was four months before there wasn’t at least one card in the mail. Facebook messages were also good. These were lovely reminders that people still cared.

You may also even think about sending a card eight or nine months later!

Remembering holidays and anniversaries

On my first wedding anniversary without Jon, someone had flowers delivered to my work. On what would have been Jon’s birthday, some friends threw a huge birthday bash. It was awesome.

Grief is often a lonely thing. It feels like everyone else has moved on when your world has stopped. So, being remembered on a holiday is beautiful grace.

It’s ok to laugh and talk of normal things.

One of the sweetest memories from the early days was a night at community group where we laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. These friends knew I needed a release from the other extreme emotions. They knew it was ok to laugh even though I was far from done.

It’s ok for you to grieve too.

On the flip side it was good for me to see that others were hurting also. I was so thankful that they would share the burden with me. It also helped to know how much they loved and missed my husband.

Scripture

God’s word is powerful, and the Holy Spirit is the great Comforter. I think that is self-explanatory.

Remind them who they are.

At first I didn’t know who I was anymore or where I fit. Social situations filled me with anxiety.

My pastor often reminded me of my identity in Christ – adopted, chosen, beloved… And then one of the most powerful statements he gave- “You are still you.” I didn’t believe it for a long time. But it was true.

Ask questions

What are you struggling with this week? What do you miss about him today? How is your heart?

Small caveat: “How are you?” is an overwhelming question. I’d say, ask it only if you really want to know.

Hugs!

For me this was vastly important. But then again I have an incredibly high touch quotient!

Finally, I’d say the main thing is just be there. It doesn’t take much to be a blessing. Just let your friend know she is loved.

How marvelous it is that Christ made His church a body! We are inextricably connected. Praise God He didn’t leave us to face life alone.

Amen!

Ami head shotI’d say the most important thing to know about me is to know my Savior, Jesus. I’m redeemed, justified, made alive because of the finished work of Christ on the cross. Jesus paid the penalty for my sin. but He didn’t stay dead. He rose again! He ever lives and pleads for me. He chose me and calls me His own. I want to be a true disciple.

Jon, my husband and wonderful true love, died about a year and a half ago. He adored me, but he adored Jesus and the gospel more.

I used to teach kindergarten, but currently I work for my church counseling and teaching ladies. I’ve had the privilege to speak at several ladies retreats in the last year. Also, one of my blog posts was featured on the True Woman blog, a subset of Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. You can find that post here.

I began writing primarily to help process the roller coaster of grief. The ramblings were my honest, raw, thoughts as a 30 year old, childless widow. I felt strongly that I needed to let others see my journey, and let God use it to break down stereotypes of Christian grief. Now I write to encourage and equip with the comfort I’ve been given. I want the Lord to use my life in any way He chooses. His gospel. His glory.

My blog is found at www.whenmercyfoundme.com

Of this I can be sure, “I have engraved you on the palms of my Hand…” Isaiah 49:16 The God who rescued me, bought me, made me righteous, this God has not forgotten me. And Him will I serve, always.

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14 Comments

  1. Thank you for your guidance! Your church family sounds incredible! I have been the “Tell me if you need anything” friend because I wanted to help but didn’t know how. (And have never been given a need to help with.) I cringe now realizing what I thought was helpful wasn’t so much.
    I think as humans, or at least some of us, desperately want others to not suffer and wish there was a great word we can say to make others feel better instead of seeing them in pain. When my grandma died I had a very sweet coworker give me a string of cliche phrases people say because she felt so bad. I could see her beautifully tender heart crying for me through it, but just a simple hug or ‘Sorry for your loss’ have been so much better than sorting through phrases that, while some were true, I was not yet in a stage of grief to take comfort in yet.

    1. Staci, yes my church family truly is incredible. We have our junk and are definitely not perfect, but I love seeing Christ be the center. They are truly family to me. Actually, where I live I don’t have any blood family, but my church is the reason I didn’t move back south after Jon died.

      I think you’re right, people truly want to bless and encourage even when they don’t know how. I remind myself often that even the “cliches” are out of a heart of love. I definitely relate to not being in a place to hear certain things.

      I often wish I could take the pain from others also. And, I wouldn’t have known how much some of these “not helpfuls” hurt till I walked through them myself. I’m thankful for God’s grace and patience with me–They teach me to be patient with others (Though I don’t always do it well).
      Thank you for your encouragement!
      Ami

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m in tears, because I am in a season of grieving and all of this is so true. I had a miscarriage about 9 weeks ago, and one of the most encouraging things that someone said to me when I told her the news was, “Oh, no. I’m sorry. This is so sad.” She shared in my sadness, and it was comforting to have someone agree with me that it was sad, rather than try to fix it. One of the most unhelpful things that someone told me was, “Keep your head up, sweetie.” That’s not something you want or feel able to do when grieving. Thanks again!

    1. Jane, my heart still aches with you. I’ve never experienced miscarriage, but walked closely beside my sister-in-law as she grieved her little one. Praying for you sweet sister.- “Lord please continue to comfort Jane. Help her to know that you are in control, that you are good and doing good. Wrap her in tangible grace.”

      And you’re right “Keep your head up” is definitely not helpful. Praise God you don’t have to keep your head up! His grace is sufficient. His strength is made perfect in weakness. with love, Ami

  3. Thank you for sharing this Ami. When my father-in-law passed away suddenly at the start of this year, I know my husband and his sister said a lot of the same things. It’s taken those of us around them a while to understand what is helpful and not so helpful!

    1. Claire, I think it’s a learning process for everyone. I certainly didn’t know these things till I walked through it myself. I think just being patient, and giving grace are some of the most important things. If you’re interested, there are some great books that have really blessed me through grief. One is a kid’s book called “Tear Soup”– I think it nails it. Two other important books for me were A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and Glorious Ruin by Tullian Tchvidjan. Praying for you all today!

  4. This post is soooo right on! I lost my high school sweetheart husband in Dec of ’12. He was 34 and left me a single mom of 4 sweet girls. I can absolutely relate to everything you wrote. Also another one is “he’s now your guardian angel”…..no, he’s not. He is 100% in Heaven, but we don’t become angels when we pass, the Bible is clear on that. I even wrote a post about this because it’s become my pet peeve….anyway…..

    Thank you for writing this! I am on my way to your blog to check out more!!!! It is and has always been my prayer that the Lord will use me for His glory in this situation He has put me in. I am now remarried (and gained another sweet daughter), but it’s still hard in so many ways. I’m thankful that the Lord has been with me the entire way, but the more things like this are out in the open, maybe people will start to think before throwing out the “normal things to say”……

    1. Nicole, thank you so much for stopping by. I think we could relate to each other in so many ways. I’m 31 now, but when my husband died we were both 30. He died in Jan 2013. One difference is that I don’t have any children. It’s really a blessing to me to read that you are remarried! This is a desire of my heart too. I long to be loved and cherished again.

      And yes I totally agree! I often clarify the “guardian angel” misconception. Jon is worshiping Jesus. And Jesus is caring for me. Amen!

      My heart is just to glorify Christ in this new life also. And I’m so thankful that He carries us through the hard times! Thank you for your encouragement to me!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. Even though I experienced the death of my father, I still struggle to know what to say or how to be helpful to someone who is going through their own loss. I can’t even imagine the depth of your own grief, and I appreciate you delving in to help us understand just a little, so we might be able to minister to others in a meaningful way. Praying for you today!

    1. Amy, thank you so much for stopping by and for your encouraging words! I truly appreciate it. Thank you also for praying–I love that there can be unity and care among strangers who are connected by the gospel of grace!

  6. Ami, thank you so much for writing this. I’m so sorry for your loss. Jon looks kind, thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, and fun-loving, and the two of you were beautiful together.

    I lost my husband and best friend in 2008, and can heartily agree with each of the points you have presented here, both the positive and the negative (No, I am not and never will be a Ms. I am Mrs. That time-honored etiquette got it right.) You really nailed it.

    In the past six and a half years, there have been times that the body of Christ has moved in to help, unexpectedly and beautifully, for our family. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am eternally grateful for every blessing or help, no matter how small. I stand amazed at the glorious compassion and emotional intelligence I witnessed in those holy ones.

    Truthfully, though, there have been many, many, more days that I have felt utterly alone, friendless and helpless. In some ways, the loss itself has become more “normal” in the ensuing years, but in many other ways, living without my spouse; my children living without their amazing dad; has become more difficult with each passing year. Parenting alone, and being the sole head of the household is weighty and wearing. There is never enough of me to go around. I am weary. And sadly, the help that was vital and forthcoming in the first days and months has grown thinner each year as I have simultaneously grown more weary. Often, I cry out for the Lord to raise up a James 1:27 community.

    I don’t mean to point fingers. I confess to my shame that until I was sensitized to the plight of widows by being cast in the play, I had never known a widow, helped a widow, or known what to say to a widow if I did meet one. The idea that there were desperately broken, grieving people out there who were not going to come knocking on my door for help, had never crossed my mind. The orphans and the widows were all in Africa or India, not in my church.

    Because I assume that there are many righteous and God-fearing people out there in internet-land who are innately compassionate and want to help, but don’t know how, I have taken the liberty of compiling a short list of ideas. This list is by no means comprehensive, and is obviously not individualized to every widow. Since I was widowed as a mother of young children, I am sensitized to the needs of widows with children, but the needs of childless or older widows may be slightly different.

    Please do not assume that someone else is already caring for the widow in your church or the widow who lives on your street: when in doubt, please ask. Also, not every person should feel an obligation to meet every need a widow may have, but if each family in a church of at least 365 households helped one widow, with one need, once per year, the widows would be amply cared for with very little inconvenience to any one individual.

    Suggestions for Helping Your Local Widow, (In rambling order):

    Offer to watch her kids so that she can go to the doctor, get a haircut, catch up on housework and bill-paying, or go Christmas shopping for her kids. I cannot emphasize this enough. Widows with young children need help with childcare. Even if she has family in town, or even attending the same church, she still may need help. Please ask.

    Invite her and her children to dinner or a family fun night in your home.

    Ask if she will be spending Thanksgiving or Christmas with family, or if she will be all alone. Invite her family to share in one of your family’s festivities.

    Ladies, get together, ask your husbands to watch all of the kids while you take her out to coffee or dinner.

    Guys, get together, or grab your teenage sons to help you check on her car: change the oil, check the tire pressure. Are the tires unsafe to drive on? Ask her if she is having trouble affording new ones.

    Ditto for small home repairs. Is there a leaky faucet? A towel bar that pulled out of the wall several months ago? An outdoor light that has been burned out for months, but that she has not changed because she does not own a tall ladder and cannot afford one? Ask how you can help.

    Does the yard look like a drug dealer lives in her house? Don’t assume that she likes it that way or that she doesn’t notice. She is bereaved and alone, not suddenly derelict. She probably lacks, time, money and energy to care for the yard in the way she’d like to.

    Churches, organize a coalition of safe fathers to act as special uncles in her kids’ lives.

    Do her kids need Fall jackets or Winter coats? These items are expensive, and kids keep growing. Do her kids need snow boots, winter pajamas, or school shoes? These are needs that recur every year.

    Ask her if she is able to afford a Christmas tree or gifts for her kids this year?

    Are her kids longing for Christmas lights on the house? Maybe they haven’t had that since their dad died.

    Remember her birthday and Mother’s day with a card. Buy her a small gift for Christmas. She may not have anyone to celebrate and encourage her now that her husband is gone.

    Is your family going camping? I bet her kids would love to come along! She might, too!

    Is there a ladies’ event at church for which childcare will not be provided? Ask her if she’d like to attend, and if so, help her arrange free child care. Do you have a teenage daughter who needs some community service hours to round out her high school transcript?

    Does she need firewood? Does she have enough warm blankets?

    Is her heating or water bill late again this month because her son broke his arm, and her daughter needed new eyeglasses?

    There are so many more possible needs that I have not written here, but that may need to be addressed. Look around. If you need it, the widow in your church may need it too.

    At the risk of ending on a macabre note, the church would do well to realize that 50% of married people whose marriages remain intact will be widowed at some point in their lives. Statistically, most of them will be women.

    Men, if you were to die tomorrow, what kind of help and support would you hope your wife and kids would receive after you are gone? Look around you. Does it currently exist in your church? Ladies, what kind of help would you need if your husband went to be with the Lord tomorrow? The good news is that we can all begin right now to build the James 1:27 support systems that we would each desire for our bereaved loved ones.

    Blessings.

  7. Wonderful advice. Our homeschool family has been rocked these past two months with terrible tragedy and grief. We are all struggling to hold each other up. I’m going to share this hoping it helps those of us supporting.

    I would add one thing to one of your comments. I learned something when I was young and lost my favorite uncle and then my dad 6 years later. The words “I know what you are going through/feeling” are pretty much never true and it would be wonderful if we could figure out how to stop saying this well meaning but untrue and unhelpful platitude. No one Ever really knows how someone else feels. Two sisters who lose a brother aren’t going through the same thing. Their situations are never identical and their reactions/process won’t be the same.

    I fail at responding perfectly. I’m not perfect! But I Try to respond with “I remember how hard it was for me to lose someone I dearly loved. “This”helped for me, can I do that for you? … oh. ..and I’m willing to hear “no thank you” that is also very important. I struggle with that one. Not that a grieving person should be rude, though grace should be fully extended, but the supporters really need to let them have the freedom to say yes to some things and No to others.

    Sorry for the length, this is an on point topic for me and our community right now.