Supporting someone who is grieving
There are lots of stories in the Bible about Jesus spending time with people in distress of one kind or another. St Mark describes a man who lived in a graveyard, tore his clothes, howled all night and hurt himself with stones. Nowadays, we would probably think of some kind of psychiatric disorder; in Jesus’ day, without the benefit of modern medicine, the people said he was possessed by a demon. Whatever the reason, this man was clearly in deep distress and shunned by his community. Jesus, though, did not shy away from the man. He spent time with him, listened to him, talked to him, attended to his distress. (Mark 5:1-20)
For many people in distress of any kind, including bereavement, what they need most is for someone to spend time, to listen and to talk, to attend to their distress. Grief is a normal emotional response to a loss and most people will get through it with time and love. We don’t really ever finish grieving for the biggest losses such as the death of a loved one, but in time the sharpness of the pain should lessen. There are some really simple things you can do to help someone along the way.
We don’t really ever finish grieving for the biggest losses such as the death of a loved one, but in time the sharpness of the pain should lessen.
What can we do when a friend is grieving?
Be there. It may sound simple but lots of people (like the man’s community in Mark’s story above) avoid anyone in grief. It can be hard to know what to say, or we might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, but that doesn’t matter. The worst thing has already happened to your friend, you can’t make it any worse than it already is. So be there. And carry on being there for as long as they need you.
Listen. You may well have your own experience of grief and that will help you to empathise but that doesn’t mean that you know just how your friend feels. We all experience grief differently and your friend doesn’t need to hear all about how it was for you. And almost certainly doesn’t need your advice. So just let them talk. Let them be honest about how they feel. When you ask, “How are you?” show your friend that you really want to know. Don’t be afraid of tears – it’s perfectly normal to cry when we’re grieving!
Don’t be afraid of silence. It’s tempting to fill any silences with talk, but sometimes your friend will be thinking or deciding what to say next and your talking will interrupt their thinking and halt their flow. So just wait.
Don’t try and fix it. Because you can’t and your friend knows that too. Most people who are grieving only want one thing and that’s for their loved one to come back. When you speak, the most important thing is to let your friend know that you’ve heard their distress and sorrow. Use some of their own words to reflect back their feelings.
For most people, grieving will be a long, hard road, but one that will be a little the easier for having a companion along the way.
Don’t be surprised. Your friend’s mood may change from day to day or even minute to minute. Emotions come and go. One day, they might want you to hug them tightly; another time they might be bright and cheerful; another, they might be angry and shouting. Go with the flow. If your friend does get angry remember, they’re almost certainly angry at the situation, not angry with you, so don’t take it personally, give them some space but let them know that you’re there when they need you.
Offer practical help. People in grief often don’t really know what they want or need; and few of us are good at asking for help. So instead of saying, “just ask if you need anything” try and offer specific help: “I’m going shopping, what can I get you?” “Can I put this casserole in your freezer?”
Look out for signs of something more serious. If your friend doesn’t seem to be feeling any better after many months then you could carefully suggest that they should see their GP (and offer to go with them). If your friend starts to talk about suicide or “everyone else would be better off if I wasn’t here” or “I can’t go on” then call The Samaritans with them on 116 123, inform their GP and if you’re really worried, take them to A&E or call 999.
For most people, grieving will be a long, hard road, but one that will be a little the easier for having a companion along the way. We don’t ever ‘get over’ the death of someone close to us, but we can learn to live with it. Having someone with us, who takes the time to listen, who isn’t afraid of our pain or our tears, who doesn’t imagine that they know just how we feel or who wants to fix it, will make all the difference. Just as the man who met Jesus in the graveyard discovered.