If you haven’t already experienced it yourself, you will undoubtedly have encountered a friend or family member who has suffered bereavement.
Death is an unwelcome but inevitable part of life, and the pain it brings is inescapable and overwhelming for the close family and friends.
We all feel desperate to support those grieving in our community but it is often difficult to know how to do this. How, as Christians, can we effectively minister to those suffering or soon to suffer the loss of someone dear? What do we say? What should we do? From a bit of personal experience and a lot of conversations with others, here are five suggested dos and don’ts when supporting grieving friends.
1. Don’t make vague or generalised offers of help
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” “Shout if you need anything.” Statements like these are always well intended, but not always that helpful as a stand-alone offer.
In the twelve months that my father had terminal cancer, I don’t think my mother ever phoned someone and said: “remember the time you said to call if I needed anything...?” It’s not easy to ask for help, so making yourself vaguely available isn’t enough. They probably won’t take you up on it.
Do make specific offers of help, and, if appropriate, just go ahead and do it.
A better way of offering to help is by making specific suggestions, such as: “Can I give you a lift to the hospital this week?” “Could I come over and do some cleaning for you?” This means the person doesn’t have to think on the spot about how you could help, and will also know what you’re willing to do for them.
Better still, tell them you’re going to help in a specific way, or just do it. One thoughtful friend of my parents used to drop off some home baking to them every week. If she asked them, they probably would have told her not to go to the trouble, but she just turned up with it, and it was hugely appreciated.
Think carefully about what the needs might be for your friend, or find out from someone who knows. Is it food? Transport? Childcare? Clearing out or redecorating? Practical help is vital for somebody grieving. They’re probably sleep deprived, struggling to think straight or complete tasks. So do it for them without waiting for them to ask.
2. Don’t ask “how are you?”
I’m never sure how to answer this question at the best of times. I don’t know which area of life I should talk about, or how much the person actually wants to know so I usually opt for the safe and generic, “yeah, well thanks”. And though asked out of loving concern, for the grieving person it can be a completely overwhelming question.
They won’t be sure how you’re expecting them to be, or what aspect you’re asking about. Do you mean emotionally? Practically? Physically? Spiritually? Where do they begin? Will you feel awkward if they’re too honest? Do you want a brief summary or a long conversation?
Do ask more specific questions
Do some of the thinking for them. Try to ask more specific things like: “how are you sleeping?” “Have family been around this week?” Follow up on prior knowledge, asking questions such as: “How did the scan go on Wednesday?” “How are you feeling about going back to work?”
Remembering what they’ve told you before shows you are truly engaged with what they are going through, and it will also save them from repeating themselves or being unsure what to share.
3. Don’t spend time making excuses
It’s easy to feel guilty when you bump into a grieving friend. Perhaps you haven’t visited as regularly as you’d planned; maybe you’ve forgotten to call. But don’t waste time making apologies or explaining why you haven’t been in touch. When you do that, very quickly the conversation becomes all about you instead of your friend and their sorrow. They’ve got so much happening; it’s not likely they’ve been sitting at home wondering why you haven’t come. Focus on how you can serve them now, rather than what they might think of you.
Do visit even if you haven’t for a while
Don’t let the guilt of not calling stop you from calling. And when you do, ask about them. Arrange a time to visit. Take them a meal or a cake. Then the next time you’ll know more and can follow up on how they’re doing.
4. Whatever you do, don’t say or do nothing
When you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, it might seem safer to say and do nothing. Perhaps you fear they won’t want to talk about it, or they don’t want any visitors. But if you avoid them or just make small talk instead, their grief becomes the awkward elephant in the room. They may not feel able to bring it up themselves, so by not asking about it, you’re denying them the chance to express how they’re truly doing. Even though it’s the last thing you’d want them to think, they may even presume that you don’t care.
Do acknowledge what they’re going through and just be there
Be there, no matter how awkward it feels. If they don’t want to talk about it, I’m sure they’ll make it clear and then you can change the subject. But let that be their choice. Very often, grieving people want to talk about it. They need to process the loss, and have the opportunity to share precious memories of their loved one.
Listen well, and, if possible, share your own fond memories of their beloved person. It is a great comfort to know that others are grieving alongside you, as grief can be incredibly lonely. Your friend may fear that their loved one will be forgotten, so reassure them this isn’t the case.
Ministering to the bereft and those facing loss is not easy, but it is vital work. The Bible tells us to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Psalm 147:3 says that God “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds”, and he wants to use us to do this. So be his hands and feet. Be sensitive, encouraging, sympathetic, faithful and practical. Ask him for wisdom and the right words to say. And even if you feel completely out of your depth, just be there, and trust God with the rest.
5. Don’t just say ‘isn’t it great they’ve gone to heaven!’
If the person was/is a Christian, knowing that they have gone/will go to be with Christ when they die is a profound consolation for the grieving person. However, jumping straight to that before acknowledging the very great pain of loss is completely unhelpful. Yes, ultimately Jesus has conquered death, and your friend will one day be reunited with their loved one. Of course, this is a wonderful truth, but right now they are also facing the rest of their lives without their husband, wife, sister or father.
They may be watching or have watched their loved one suffer terribly over the last months or years, and are now tasting the dreadful silence of a life without them in it. Despite the glorious future ahead, their present is overwhelmingly hard. Death is unnatural, unwelcome and not how the world was meant to be, so don’t skip that.
Do grieve with them first, and then remind them of our hope in Christ
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ (v13-14)
We grieve, but importantly, not without hope. So, mourn with your friend. Give them the chance to express their great sadness to you, show sympathy, cry with them. Share in their sorrow and don’t be afraid to first pause in grief with them. But then point them to our very great hope in Christ.
Remind them that their loved one is not in the grave, but in heaven with our beloved Lord Jesus, free from pain and sorrow forever. Express that, despite the pain now, one day they will be reunited with their loved one in glorious splendour, never to be separated again.
Sarah Phillips lives in Oxford and is a mother of two young boys. In her spare time she blogs on Christian living