How can you help a grieving person?
A person you know at St. Paul’s has just lost his wife. You have decided to attend the wake to express your concern and sympathy. As you drive over, you get this uneasy feeling because you don’t know what to say and you’re afraid of being uncomfortable, saying the wrong thing, or having that awkward silence. Despite these feelings, you continue your drive remembering the words from John 11:33-36 about Jesus’ great compassion toward Martha and her sister, Mary as they were grieving the death of Lazarus.
"When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, He became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Sir, come and see.' And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how He loved him."
Know that it is okay to feel a little anxious. Perhaps the best advice for anyone in that situation is to keep things simple. In many cases, the grieving person will not remember the exact words you said at the wake. What he will remember is your comforting presence – just quietly being present and being compassionate. You may want to simply say, “Hello, it is good to see you,” or possibly a reassuring touch on the arm, a gentle handshake or a hug. Or perhaps, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this” or “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”
Beyond those comforting words, you need to clearly follow the other person’s lead in understanding to what extent he wants to share what’s on his mind and heart. In fact, he may not be ready to share anything with you at that time. If he wants to talk and express his feelings, you could say “Fill me in on what’s happening” or “Bring me up to date.” And always remember that crying is healing. Although you might not be comfortable with it, this is not about you. It’s about the grieving person. Crying is good; it releases tension and gets painful feelings out in the open. That’s part of the healing process for all of us.
Unfortunately for some of us, who want to help, our well-intended words or actions can sometimes end up adding to the person’s burdens instead of easing his pain. Thankfully, pastor and clinical psychologist, Kenneth C. Haugk offers some help in his book Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart. The tips that he offers are drawn from many years of experience as a pastor and surveys that he has done with over 4,000 grieving individuals. Here’s some advice from Dr. Haugk as to what not to say:
• I know how you feel. You don’t know and saying you do robs that person of his unique identity.
• It’s for the best (or he’s not suffering anymore, he’s at peace etc.). It can come over that you want him to see the situation as you do. He needs to arrive at that conclusion independently.
• Keep a stiff upper lip statement (e.g. I have a friend in a similar situation and he is at peace now; What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc.). These are unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on the one hurting. The message within the message is why can’t you respond to the situation like someone else I know?
• “At least” statements. They tend to minimize the pain of the suffering person by saying it is not as bad as it could be or that other people have experienced worse.
• You should/shouldn’t statements. It is an unpleasant experience for the suffering person and also tends to shut down communications.
• God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle. This is a bible verse (I Corinthians 10:13). However, the verse refers to resisting temptation; not bearing up under pain and suffering. Making this statement certainly doesn’t lighten the load of the grieving person but adds more pain.
• It’s God’s Will. According to Dr. Hauck, this is one of the most carelessly used religious phrases purporting to offer comfort. In the research, 93% of the surveyed participants who had been told that their suffering was God’s will react strongly and negatively.
“Like a moth in clothing, or a maggot in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.” (Proverbs 25:20).
In contrast to platitudes and clichés, just know how our Lord, the Great Comforter can work through your mere presence in bringing comfort to a grieving person. Also, a heartfelt personal note sent with your sympathy card can provide a powerful healing message and your prayers offered up for peace and hope for the grieving person is always heard.
Please remember, after the funeral is over, there will be a long period of time in which this person will go through various stages of the grieving process. At St. Paul’s, we have a special ministry that can help in which trained Stephen Ministers walk in faith with that person throughout the grieving process however long it takes. They are the “after people”. Once everyone else has forgotten about the griever’s pain and is expecting him to get over it, the Stephen Minister is still there caring, listening nonjudgmentally, and helping the “care receiver” understand that he is not alone and his grief can take as long as it needs to take. If you know someone who could use the assistance of a Stephen Minister in that way, encourage him to contact Nick Thorpe at 484-4854 or Carmen Guttmann at 475-2514. --J.G.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, The Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. ” – (2 Cor. 1:3-4).