Walking With Grieving Friends

I was reminded this past week that there are a lot of hurting people in our country, particularly those walking through grief. My heart goes out to Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. As they mourn the victims of this senseless shooting, I can’t help but think of those left behind, in the wake of tragedy. Because of my own experience, my mind races to the loved ones of the victims, trying to empathize with what they are going through, asking God to intervene and comfort them as only He can.

A couple years ago, when a friend was walking through his own tragic loss, I was asked to put together a list for those walking alongside the grieving. I based it on how my closest friends and family rallied behind me in my darkest hour. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’s some things that really helped me.

Some general info:

  • Loss of a loved one can be one of life’s most stressful experiences. It’s exhausting; it’s overwhelming. Had you told me on day one that I’d be here to tell others how to help their friends through it, I would have never believed you. It’s a day by day, often hour by hour, journey. God’s provision of family and friends literally carried me through; they got in the “trenches” with me and would not let me give up.
  • The first stage of grief tends to be a fog. My counselor explained it as God literally “bubble wrapping” the brain because the pain is too intense otherwise. Over several months, that bubble wrap slowly peeled off, leading me into the other phases of grief.
  • Know this is a long journey. For anyone who loses a loved one, most grief books say to allow for a year to get through the “firsts.” For those whose loss is sudden, unexpected, and/or complicated, sometimes that means additional time. If it was a long-term illness, grief can start the day of the terminal diagnosis. Of course, these are just guidelines. There’s no “formula” for grieving and everyone does it differently.
  • The greatest thing my best friend did to help me was to educate herself on grief and what I was going through. No, she had not lost a spouse, but she did everything she could to understand. A few resources I found helpful are here.

In the immediate:

  • Pray. I mean, really pray, not just use it as a hashtag. I have countless stories of my friends who sent me just the scripture or song I needed, or told me they were praying for me at a specific time, when I could truly sense God bringing me comfort and peace. I saw it as God working through my friends to tell me “hi”…. that He was WITH me in the darkest moments.
  • Until the “dust” settles, reach out in ways other than a phone call. Texts, email, Facebook messages, cards were all good because I could read them (and if I chose to, respond) in my own time. My phone was blowing up those first few days as I planned the memorial and took care of urgent needs; I had to have friends and family manage my calls for me.
  • Acknowledge the loss for what it is: it sucks, it’s heart-breaking. It’s not something we can make sense of this side of heaven. I wanted to sucker punch folks who tried to over-spiritualize it or give Christian-ese responses. I knew Tony was in heaven, I didn’t need to be told that God got an angel, that he was in a better place, that I would see him again, that God has a plan, that I’d get married again.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell stories. I was able to stand for 3+ hours at the receiving line for Tony’s memorial because of person after person who gave me examples of how their lives were impacted by Tony. I kept all the emails and cards from those who told me stories about him. They brought such comfort, and even a few good laughs, and, in time, have translated into a legacy I now carry forward.
  • Listen; you don’t have to have the right thing to say. I appreciated those who let me ramble on about Tony. I needed folks to just sit with me, sometimes saying nothing at all. Sometimes I asked for advice, but more often, I just needed to get out frustration/anger/sorrow without anyone trying to “fix it” or be shocked by what came out of my mouth.
  • Be sensitive about questions surrounding the day the loved one passed away or the cause of death. The details surrounding Tony’s fall were extremely sensitive. My parents and friends protected me from the trauma of “retelling and reliving it” by only discussing details if I brought it up and said it was okay to talk about it. It took me over a year to even walk through that day with my grief counselor.
  • Offer to help in specific ways, but be okay if you’re not taken up on it. I was in such a fog, I didn’t always know what I needed. However, I do remember the folks who helped do yard work, pack up our home, be a sounding board for financial decisions, bring food, and take me out to dinner. Stand by your offer in a non-pushy way; and offer again a few weeks or months later, and again after that.

In the months to come:

  • Make “work hours” a safe space. My 8 hour work day was a welcome escape from grief where I could actually do something that felt somewhat “normal” and productive. My colleagues gave me permission to have a melt down or to talk about Tony if needed, but they did not purposely interrupt my day by repeatedly asking me how I was doing.
  • Recognize each loss is unique. I was the only one who lost Tony as a spouse. However, I found myself drawn to those friends who had been through their own grief journey (and there weren’t many at my age). Being around them, even if we weren’t talking specifically about grief, provided an unspoken “knowing” that they understood pain and sorrow while also giving me hope that God had carried them through.
  • Plan some fun or relaxing outings but allow for flexibility. I often only accepted invitations to do things with friends who would be okay if I cancelled at the last minute. But I seemed to pull myself together if I knew I was going to do something I would enjoy. Grief is so unpredictable. Be that safe friend who is okay with laughter or with tears or with random ramblings that don’t even make sense.
  • Make note of anniversaries and dates. It stills means so much to me when my friends reach out on Tony’s death date, his birthday or even our wedding anniversary. For my friends who have lost parents, I know that a text or note on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can be such an encouragement.
  • Interrupt the loneliness when everyone else is back to “normal.” I had hundreds of people who came to my rescue in the days after Tony’s death; I had far fewer who offered their presence 6 months in. What helped the most was that random weeknight when a friend invited me to dinner or just sent a text to check in. Even better were weekend plans. Specific for widows, losing a spouse means no longer having a constant companion to “do life” with, even the most mundane tasks. I slowly learned to be okay with the loneliness, but I’m still so grateful for the company of friends.
  • Realize that you can’t fix this. Grief is a journey I had to face; no one could endure the pain and hardship for me. But I did not face it alone. I count my family and closest friends as my greatest cheerleaders. My best friend equated it to the story in Exodus of Moses and Aaron and the defeat of the Amalekites. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning. When Moses’ arms became tired, Aaron and Hur held up his arms so that his hands remained steady until sunset. The Israelites overcame the Amalekites and Moses built an altar and called it “The Lord is my Banner…for hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.” (Exodus 17:15-16).

Will you join me in holding up the arms of the grieving?

Dearly loved,