“What do I say?”
It’s a common question – a common fear, really – when someone we know has lost a loved one.
The fear of not knowing how to approach a grieving person can plague even normally talkative folks. Some people are so nervous about it that they avoid visitations and funerals altogether.
Nancy Guthrie’s book What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) shares insights from the author’s own loss of two infants to genetic disease and from the work she and her husband do with other grieving couples.
One of the first is that a friend’s or acquaintance’s bereavement simply cannot be ignored.
“It matters less what you say than that you say something,” Guthrie says. Whether the death just happened or was months ago, a hurdle of sorts arises between the grieving person and everyone he knows. It stays there until the loss is acknowledged in some way.
A Grief Primer
Some quick insights for approaching recently bereaved folks:
• Grieving people do not expect you to make the pain go away. They really just hope you will be willing to hurt with them.
• Let the grieving person take the lead. Listen more than you talk.
• Don’t assume anything. Sometimes grief is complicated by other emotions such as relief, anger, shame, and dread – even joy.
• Don’t compare. Generally, don’t talk about your own loss or anyone else’s. Let it be all about the grieving person and the loved one who has died.
• Don’t be in a hurry. Grief is a marathon. You can’t say everything you need to on the day of the funeral; besides, grieving people will need sympathetic listeners for a long time to come.
• Don’t tell them what to do. All of us want to help, but telling the grieving person what books he ought to read, what actions she ought to avoid, what counselor to see, how their grief should progress, how they should feel, etc., can add to their stress.
• Value their grief. When we’re grieving, we want to sense the person we’re talking to recognizes how significant our grief is.
• Don’t be put off by tears. While a grieving person’s crying can seem awkward, weeping helps release the tension and get the pain out in the open, where it can be dealt with. If anything, feel honored that they feel comfortable enough with you to be vulnerable.
• Don’t ask potentially painful questions out of curiosity. Not about the cause of death. Not where it happened. Not whether she was wearing a seatbelt. Not whether the couple was living together. Not whether he was a smoker. Not about her spiritual condition.
• If the grieving person wants to talk about hard moments or feelings of regret, be willing to listen. Let your heart be broken with theirs, and then keep the details to yourself as a sacred trust.
• Don’t hesitate to approach someone because you think it has been too long since his or her loved one died. We may think they’ve probably moved on and don’t want to talk about it anymore. The reality is more likely to be the opposite. As other people have stopped talking about their loved one, the grieving one’s desire to talk about him or her has only increased.
NOTE: This blog series is adapted from What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie, © 2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.