1. Grieving people don’t expect you to have words that will fix this, but they do want you to say something.
To a person who has lost someone they love, it is as if a hurdle has been erected between them and everyone else until the loss is acknowledged in some way. So say something. Of course oftentimes we don’t say something because we’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. Sometimes we don’t say something because we want to say something meaningful, insightful, or helpful and we can’t come up with anything. But people who are grieving don’t expect that you are going to say something that will make everything okay, or that you’re going to come up with some spiritual or emotional insight they haven’t thought of to this point. They just want you to say something simple like, “I’m so sad with you.”
2. Grieving people don’t want to hear a story about your own or someone else’s loss.
My theory is that in our effort to fill up the awkward silence, or in our desire to demonstrate that we really do “get” what they are going through, our brains go on a search for a match to the current situation. That’s natural. But when a search result comes up, we don’t have to say it out loud. Instead, we can keep the focus on the person who is grieving and how the loss has impacted them. We might think the story of our experience or someone else’s will be helpful. It won’t be. Their own loss is all they have space for in their thoughts, conversation, and hearts right now, so keep the focus on them.
3. You don’t have to be in the inner circle of a grieving person’s friends to be a welcome companion in grief.
Sometimes we stay away from people going through grief because we think they must have closer friends who are coming alongside them during this hard time and that we would be an unwelcome intrusion. But I have hardly ever met a grieving person who didn’t have at least one story of someone they thought would be there for them who disappeared. But when I ask these same people, “Were there some people who showed up in your grief in incredible ways that weren’t your close friends before your loss?” And they almost always say, “Yes!” These people may be in their lives for a short time or may be there to stay, but they will never be forgotten.
4. If grieving people cry when you bring up the person they love who has died, it’s not because you made them sad.
Sometimes we see someone who is going through grief and we are afraid to bring up their loss because it seems like they are having a good day, and we don’t want to “make them sad.” But here’s the thing: they are already sad. Their grief is like a computer program always running in the background. When you ask them a question like, “How is your grief these days?” or tell them something you remember or how you have been thinking about the person who died, you simply gave them an opportunity to release some of their sadness in the form of tears. You cared enough to bring up the one topic they really want to talk about, but don’t always know how to bring up or simply don’t bring up because of their fear that it will make everyone else uncomfortable.
5. Grieving people will not necessarily call you if they need something.
Sometimes we say to people, “I’m here. Please call me if you need anything.” And we mean it. But someone in the midst of grief can barely think straight. They certainly can’t take on the task of recruiting and organizing the help they need. What they really need is for people around them to figure out something that would be helpful and just do it. “I’m going to mow your grass for the rest of the summer so you don’t have to think about it,” or “Would you like some company to go pick out the burial plot or to order the gravestone?” or “I’m going to come over on Thursday morning and do your laundry.” No one is ever going to call and ask someone to come over and clean their toilets or wash their clothes, but sometimes that is what they really need.
6. Grieving people long to keep on hearing their loved one’s name.
The greatest fear grieving people have is that the person they love will be forgotten. The person is gone from their presence and they’re afraid that person will be erased from everyone’s thoughts. To hear someone simply speak that person’s name is like a balm to the soul of a grieving person.
7. Grieving people would enjoy hearing a story about your experience with the person who died.
In the midst of grief people hear a lot of generalities about the person who died, things like, “He was a really great guy.” But what they long for are specific stories about experiences others had with that person, specific qualities that someone appreciated and instances in which those qualities were evident. So to tell a grieving person one of these stories brings joy in the midst of sorrow. And to actually write out one of these stories provides the grieving person with something that brings comfort again and again as they read it and share it with others over the days and years to come.
8. Grieving people want you to simply be there at the visitation, the funeral, and beyond.
If you can’t make it to the visitation or the funeral, don’t tell the person why you couldn’t come (unless you were on the other side of the world or in a coma) because whatever reason kept you from being there on the lowest days of their life, when they wanted the whole world to stop and take notice that the person they loved died, simply won’t be good enough. Just say that you are so disappointed that you couldn’t be there. Ask the person to tell you about aspects of the service that were special to them. Maybe even ask if you can come over and watch a video of the service with them.
9. It is extremely hard for a grieving person to have to give a report on how they’re doing. But they do want you to invite them to talk about their grief and their loved one who died.
We tend to approach people who have been through a loss with the question, “How are you?” It is simple enough and it certainly demonstrates caring. But many grieving people feel at a loss to come up with an adequate answer to the question. “Not so good,” might sound pathetic. “Good,” just isn’t the truth. They sometimes feel as if the person asking will judge how they’re doing this grief thing if they’re honest about the ups and downs and waves of grief that sometimes overtake them. Much better is to ask an open-ended question such as, “What’s your grief like these days?” It acknowledges that it makes sense they would be sad and allows them to talk about it.
10. It means the world to a grieving person to hear from you on the anniversary of their loved one’s death—no matter how long it has been since that person died.
There is a day that comes around on the calendar every year for the person who has lost someone they love—the day of the accident, the day the machines were turned off, the day they got the dreaded phone call. As the day approaches on the calendar, there is a sense of dread—almost as if it is going to happen again and they can’t do anything about it. They’re trying to figure out what to do with the day to remember the person who died. Sometimes there’s no energy for that and so they’re simply trying to live through the day. For someone else to care enough to send a note, make a call, or ask them to lunch or dinner, or ask to accompany them to the grave is an incredible gift.
The author, Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and at conferences worldwide. She and her husband, David, are the cohosts of the GriefShare video series used in more than 10,000 churches nationwide and also host Respite Retreats for couples who have experienced the death of a child. Guthrie is also the host of Help Me Teach the Bible, a podcast of the Gospel Coalition.