When terrible loss strikes, it’s hard to know what to say as you try to comfort those who a tragedy hits hardest. Unfortunately, my family is no stranger to grief -- but I hadn’t experienced a loss so earth-shattering until I lost my older brother suddenly, almost 11 years ago at 24-years-old. The unexpected death of a bright, young man thrust my family into the strangest of spotlights, and friends, both new and old, came out of the woodwork to hold us up.
But what can you say to support someone who is walking through hell?
How can you comfort someone who can barely put one foot in front of the other?
I don’t claim to be an expert in the area of grief or loss by any means; however, my own experiences have made me more aware of what I say to friends who are walking through grief, and how I do my best to support them in the days and years that follow.
1.) WATCH YOUR WORDS
By nature, I am a problem fixer. I want so badly to be able to improve any situation by offering a solution, or a ‘bright side’, or an inspiring mantra. To be honest, I cringe to think of what I might’ve said to someone experiencing loss before I knew any better.
Since that time, I’ve been on the receiving end of well-meaning comments that feel more like a gut punch than a warm hug.
This is all part of God’s plan. Or,
God chose this for you because you’re so strong!
While I understand the sentiment here, for me, suggesting that God is the orchestrator of a tragedy was both a deeply hurtful and confusing conversation starter.
Why would God choose my brother to die?
How can a life without him be better than the one with him in it?
A person very special to me suggested, as I processed a life without my brother, that God was crying with me. No, he had not commanded this to happen. No, he didn’t “call my brother home” so that “something more amazing could happen down the road!! The Good Lord needed one more flower in his beautiful garden!!” No. Instead, the Creator of Heaven and Earth mourned my loss alongside me. This comforted me.
At least you have another _____.
People are not crayons. We can’t negate the loss of a purple crayon by suggesting that we have a magenta one in the box. Parents who lose a child don’t need to be reminded of their other children (if applicable) in an attempt to “soften the blow.”
Don’t you wish you could just turn back time?
One of the greatest pieces of advice that my family received after my brother died was, “don’t play the ‘what if’ game.” It’s hard to not get sucked into that, no matter how loss occurs. But the truth is that wishing and wondering don’t change the outcome - and the energy spent trying to do so is all-encompassing and self-destructive.
2.) DON’T PUT THEM ON A DEADLINE
Grief is messy. It has no timeline or course. Each loss is different, and each person copes differently and in their own time. To those on the outside, this can be frustrating.
Can’t you just pull it together? Shouldn’t you be over this by now?
I get it. A grieving friend who cancels plans because they can’t get out of bed isn’t, well - fun. It can be tempting to try and “speed up” your loved one’s grieving process, simply because it’s hard. It’s inconvenient. It’s not the way it used to be.
But please remember: to your friend, it will never be the way it used to be. That’s not to say that they’ll live the rest of their lives in pajamas, hiding under the covers - it just means that adjusting to this new life takes time. The truth is, they’ll never heal completely. They’ll just learn to walk with a limp that becomes a little less noticeable as the years march by.
My problem-solving nature wishes that I could include a time-frame for you, but here’s the thing: you can’t rush grief. So many believe that because the funeral is over and the casseroles have been eaten that true healing can begin. But the honest truth is that it takes time. And only time.
Stick with us. We’d be done grieving if we could.
3.) DON’T DOWNPLAY
I can’t put a number on the amount of times that someone told me that they knew what I was experiencing because they’d lost a family dog. A job they loved. I can understand and accept that the loss of a pet or a job might be the biggest loss that you have faced - and honestly, I am so, so happy for you. But please, for the love, don’t compare the loss of a pet or an inanimate object to the loss of a human for the sake of camaraderie.
4.) CHECK IN - AND LISTEN
For many, the hardest part of losing a loved one isn’t the funeral, as awful as it is - but the days and months that follow. Within the span of a few hours, your house empties. People go on with their lives. Sports continue, jobs call, and families grow. It’s the random, lonely Thursdays that bring you to your knees.
If you haven’t heard from us, give us a call. Invite us to coffee. Ask how we’re doing, and then listen. Really listen. Sometimes we don’t need encouragement or words of affirmation, but someone who will let us talk until we’re out of breath or cry until there’s nothing left.
Alternatively, if we’re hard to get ahold of or if we seemingly “fall off the face of the earth” for a while -- know that it’s not about you. Our silence doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be your friend or that we don’t appreciate you or care about you. Please don’t get upset with us. Please don’t ask us to be a better friend. (Though, I realize that grief isn’t a carte blanche excuse to treat your friends like dirt) - but give us grace. This is hard. We have no idea how to navigate. We don’t know what we need - but we do know that we need our friends to be there when we’re ready to emerge from the darkness.