As I write this my dear friend who continues to walk closely with me through this season of grief began her own journey of suffering just days ago when a close friend and young mother of four died suddenly. She was 45.
My friend, with great sensitivity, relayed her pain and anguish to me the day it happened and it cut deeply into my still wounded heart. Not because it brought back memories of my loss, but because I grieved for the pain she was experiencing. My heart ached for her and for the husband and children and I realized for the first time that in my own grieving I had missed how my husband’s death must have severely affected his close friends.
Not just his close friends but newer relationships like his brother in Christ who just last week told me that a voice message my husband left on his phone while in the hospital meant so much to him that he saved it for some time. He said it wasn’t really what was said but that in the midst of my husband’s pain and cancer diagnosis, he was determined to finish the work he had committed to with him. I can’t tell you what a gift this story was to me. A cherished memory of the kind of person my husband was.
That small gesture of sharing a story (a thought, a remembrance, an action) is what this post is about.
Practical ways to help a sufferer
This is the fourth posting in this series on lessons learned. Many have asked us what helped and didn’t help early on as well as what ministers to us three months later. Every circumstance and situation is different but as I counsel widows and talk with friends who have gone through a similar loss, there are common threads that run through suffering.
What to say
Know that it is ok not to have the perfect words to say. Sometimes the most perfect words are; “I don’t know what to say. I love you and I am here for you.”
Don't avoid talking about the one who has died
This seems opposite of what we should do but ignoring or not talking about the loved one that died is very hurtful. Not mentioning anything, especially months after the death, looks to the sufferer as though we don’t care. Simple comfort phrases that express that you care can be offered at anytime and is always appropriate.
Some of the most helpful and healing conversations have been with those who talk about a special story, a remembrance, or a reason why they miss my husband. This always means so much to me and I know it does to the children as well. We love it when others mention what kind of friend or worker he was, or how he was encouraging to them. We love it when friends reminisce about something funny he would do or say. Laughter is so healing and hearing him talked about by others helps us to know he is not forgotten...
Ask what their happiest memories are about their loved one?
What do they miss most about that person?
Where was their favorite place to vacation?
What holiday meant the most to them?
This final question is significant. When an anniversary, birthday, Valentine's Day, or day that is most special to them does come, you can be sure it most likely will be a difficult day. What a wonderful way to show you care by remembering it.
Intense grief doesn't need fixing
Be sensitive to Christian platitudes. This was mentioned in the previous post. Christian platitudes are completely true but poor timing when these are spoken can be hurtful and not at all sympathetic. When we are too quick to say things like; “God has a plan,” “"All things work together for good,” or “He won’t give you more than you can handle,” it can be heard as an attempt to minimize the loss or fix our suffering. Intense grief doesn’t need fixing, it needs compassion and the knowledge you care, especially when the loss is new. Most likely that person knows those truths but when they are wallowing in the depths of pain what they need most is understanding, love, and care.
“And we urge you, brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” 1 Thessalonians 5:14
Offer simple statements and expressions of care that are comforting and soothing:
“I am so sorry for your loss”
“I don’t know what to say…”
“This must be very hard”
“I am praying for you”
A neighbor sent a text to me one month after my husband’s death. It was very impactful to me...
“I don't have the words nor can I readily quote a Bible verse. But I can tell you that I think of you all the time. I haven't stood where you are; I can only imagine. And to know that someone or many people are thinking of me, caring about me, and praying for me—well, I think it would just help me a little to know I'm not alone. YOU know you aren't ever alone, the good Lord is walking next to you at all times. But in our earthly lives know that you have friends who are there for you now, when you need them. Besides prayer, is there anything else you need? Would you like to have coffee sometime?”
Listen in love
Just be present
Give them hope
Of course there is a time and place when we do need to share an encouraging verse or biblical principle because grief distorts truth, but we need to remember to be sensitive to the timing, how well we know the sufferer, and if we will be walking with them for the long haul. Remind them of what they know to be true if you see or hear them wavering in their faith. If you are not close enough to know this, then reach out and just let them know they are not forgotten and they are being prayed for. It will mean so much to them.
Give them room for this to be their story
Personal suffering is unique. We may have had similarities in our stories, but the Lord relates to each of His children in a unique way. It is not possible to know exactly how another feels. Although well intended, when grief is raw, offering statements like; “I know how you feel” or “I’ve been through something similar” makes it about us.
This should be prayerfully Spirit-led and from your heart. In our circumstance we lost the provider of our family. With part-time work and three teenagers we have to trust that God knows our needs and housing situation and will continue to be faithful meeting those needs. Financial help takes many forms and God will use you in small and big ways; gift cards–gas, restaurants, grocery stores, paying a bill, or even meeting a housing need. Let God lead you. One amazing person has had a grocery store gift card automatically sent to us every month since my husband died. A beautiful blessing to our family. Another knew our spring break meant staying home and seeking to do fun indoor things in Minnesota. She secretly dropped off a card that contained some cash and the note said; “Fun needs funding...enjoy your time.” What a loving gesture. No matter the offer, it is exactly what the person needs because God is directing.
Prayerfully ask God to show you how and where you can love them practically (John 16:13).
Offer everyday mundane help: Who doesn’t need Costco runs, stamps delivered or meals brought weekly? Our meal delivery lasted four months three times a week. That gift from the community was beyond amazing.
Other practical help ideas
A monthly grazing package, flowers on a desk, a plant, hugs at church, cards filled with encouragement, tax preparation, leaky pipes replaced, pilot lights relit, vacuum cleaners fixed, a weekend away at a lodge with kids, meals included (not mundane), dinner at a restaurant with your family and theirs, help with yard vehicles, mowing the lawn, dandelions sprayed, shoveling snow, plowing driveways, washing windows, fixing garage door openers, saving moving boxes, help with purging items. If needed—help selling a vehicle or other large items. Teenage boys without a father need men with whom they can hunt, fish, range shoot, or get a lesson on how to cook on the grill. The list can and does go on. These are everyday practical helps that others can step up to.
Appoint one person to be the contact for various needs. The list of “practical helps” is endless and this suggestion assists with figuring out how all those needs get filled. Assign a person (possibly two) who will help to inform the community of helpers (especially in the beginning) what needs there are. Outsiders can go to this person with questions and offers instead of overwhelming the family.
Coordinated grocery runs were life saving for us. If there are young children this person can coordinate rides for school, activities, sports, assistance with birthday parties, homework, clothes shopping, or even, for our circumstance, dress shopping for that “first dance…”
Here is an example of how stepping up worked for us practically: My daughter’s first school dance was three days after her dad's death. Even though he had told her he wanted her to go, it was difficult for her to make that decision. Our community jumped into action: One dear friend’s daughter ran her to the mall to hunt for “the perfect” dress. Another brought her to DSW to look for shoes to wear (no such luck) and then to the nail salon. Another talented friend took her dress home and fixed a few sequences that were falling off. Then my fashionable shoe friend stepped in and dropped off three pairs of shoes for her to pick from. My sister-in-law took her to the salon that morning to get her hair done, and when parent picture time came that night, I did not have to go alone. My son, his two close friends, and my sister-in-law accompanied me, which delighted my daughter. She and I both felt loved. Her dad didn’t get to see her off to her first dance but she was able to honor his request because of the practical love and support of friends who showed up, encouraged her, and made it all possible.
A solid, loving community offering practical help for a sufferer looks different for each unique situation. Being practical means we intentionally step into a sufferer’s journey. When we do, we live out our God-given heart of compassion while glorifying God by becoming His hands and feet to those who are on the journey of grief.
But this I call to mind, And therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in Him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
– Lamentations 3:21–25
About the author
Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab...and sushi too.