Thoughts on Trying to Comfort Those Who Grieve

Last weekend we had the joy of a visit from Bruce, who was one of Alan’s closest friends during residency days and with whom Alan shared his first practice in Ann Arbor. Bruce married in his thirties, so we knew him as a single man, watched him fall in love, and rejoiced in his marriage. Bruce and his wife were best of friends! She was his greatest fan, and they were a “match made in heaven.” All that sweetness came to a bitter end five years ago when Lisa died of stage IV colon cancer.

There are no words to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of someone they love deeply. No words will ameliorate the pain, but there are plenty of words that can feel like sharp knives piercing an already wounded heart.

Alan and Kathi at Meijer Garden

Because Alan lost both his parents in a tragic event when he was only twenty-nine, and because he is a geriatrician who has cared for many dying patients over the past forty years, I used to stay tucked under his wing when we attended funerals, wanting to be present but feeling totally helpless as far as having any comforting words to offer, knowing that what I would imagine might comfort me could cause stinging pain to my friend.

Now that Alan and I are nearing seventy, and more and more of our friends are experiencing life-threatening illnesses, I’ve been trying to learn more about how to comfort those who are experiencing great loss. In that quest, I listened to an audio book called Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love: Daily Meditations to Help You Through the Grieving Process, by Raymond R. Mitsch and Lynn Brookside.

There are a plethora of books on grief recovery, and this particular one wasn’t my all-time favorite, but there are several ideas I want to pass on. It also reminded me that if you are grieving, or if you love someone who is grieving, there are many resources out there, probably most of which will offer at least some helpful insights. If you’re grieving, consider reading what others have experienced on their journeys of sorrow. For many, there’s truth in the old adage that “misery loves company.” (However, Bruce tells me that what really soothed him was the still, small voice, not the whirlwind of other voices.) If you enjoy writing, consider starting a journal about your personal pilgrimage. Writing can be one of the most therapeutic exercises on earth!

So, here are my favorite takeaways from Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love (along with some photos from Meijer Garden, where Alan and I took Bruce for a quiet stroll after church last Sunday afternoon).

Zen Garden at Meijer Garden in Grand Rapids, MI

“‘I feel your pain.’ Those four words say it all. You don’t have to have answers, just be present.” Personally, I’m not sure if “I feel your pain” is adequate, since I usually feel like their pain is often beyond my comprehension, since I haven’t lost a spouse or child yet. Nevertheless, Bruce (and others) confirm that saying nothing is better than saying anything trivial, but being present with the person is crucially helpful. Listening with compassion and without any criticism or shock over whatever they might express is also a healing balm. Their wounds are raw and sometimes ugly. “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Don’t try to play the Holy Spirit and “cure” them. Pray for the Holy Spirit to comfort and cure them.

Hydrangeas in sunshine at Meijer Garden

“Don’t stare constantly at either the sun or death.” If you’re grieving loss, don’t allow yourself to spend all your waking hours experiencing pain, or your soul will become as blind as someone who stares constantly into the sun. Instead, look into the face of God to find “safe” sunshine and beauty to relieve your aching heart. Ditto if you’re trying to encourage someone else. Don’t PREACH! Walk alongside your friend in some beautiful place where she/he will feel refreshed. “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Psalm 90:17).

“The seemingly little things you grieve are not little! The whole fabric of  your life has been rent!” I thought this was profound. The authors went on to say we need to allow ourselves to experience and process pain without trying to minimize or ignore it. Each person’s pain is unique and probably unbearable. “It will be alright,” or “Someday it will be better” doesn’t help present-tense and is like rubbing salt in the wound. Better to say nothing than try to smooth the mountain into a mole hill. It’s NOT!! (BTW, God can overcome our mountains: “The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills” (Song of Solomon 2:8).

“I thought it would be too hard to say goodbye until I refused to do so.” This point is good to process personally if you’re grieving, and I suppose there may be a time in which you can share the authors’ experiences (and both authors were writing from the wells of their own grief), but be careful on this one. Each person’s time to feel released from the intense sense of grieving out of loyalty (which follows grieving out of personal loss) is so unique that the grieving person may feel you (as the one who wants to comfort) are just pushing the person to heal so that you and she/he can both “get on with life.” My friend still wears his wedding ring after five years as a widower. That’s just fine! He’ll take it off when and if he’s ever ready to! Don’t push. Pray!! “Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant” (Psalm 119:76, and for the comfort of our loved ones).

“Suicide is a permanent end for a temporary problem” (the temporary problem being grief). I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve known a number of people who have suicided, and I definitely think some people have a genetic pre-disposition for turning to this age-old solution to chronic pain. God wants us to turn to Him in our grief (and all our troubles). He does not want us to take matters into our own hands and “end it all.”

Think of the prodigal son. When he returned to his father, his father’s arms were open, and the prodigal found forgiveness and a whole new life opening up to him. I’m not saying we are “prodigals” when we grieve, but I am saying that God is there, whether or not we’ve stayed on the farm or run off to some far country. He is waiting for us to come back and rest under the covert of his wings. He loves us. As long as He wants us on earth, He has good reasons for our being here, even if we don’t see them or understand them. “He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto God the Lord belong the issues from death” (Psalm 68:20).

Listening to History at Meijer Sculpture Park

Another verse to consider for yourself (but would probably not be good to offer someone else who is grieving) is Job 13:15, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.” We’re responsible for living with integrity and faith; God is responsible for choosing when we are born and when we die. He is also available to help us every day from birth to death and offers us eternal life through Jesus Christ, his Son, which is—to me—the ultimate comfort in the death of loved ones who have trusted in Jesus as their Lord and Savior: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Plaque in the Faith Reflective Garden. Meijer Gardens, Michigan

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Do your loved ones know God and Jesus Christ? Do you?

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Trying to Comfort Those Who Grieve

  1. This was a timely piece for me… and confirms again that you and are kindred spirits. Last week I lost a dear high school friend to cancer. She was only sick for four months – a sister, a wife, a mom, and a grandmother. She loved Jesus. Yesterday, I comforted close friends and neighbors who lost their husband, father, grandfather and brother. Diagnosed with cancer only three weeks ago… came home from work one day, landed in the hospital that night and is now living with Jesus. O the pain of the separation from these two.
    A few years ago I did a ladies conference on the “One Another’s” of the Bible. I did a section on helping those who are grieving. Going from helpless to helpful. LIke you, I have worked at getting good at this. My favorite book is “The Art of Helping” by Florence Littauer’s daughter. Out of that session came a handout I called “Say This and Not That” – an actual list of things not to say and some alternatives that would be better. It came from my own experience ten years ago. I nearly died and was bedridden for 6 weeks. I heard “I’m praying for you” over and over from many sources. But, I have to confess that the more I heard it the more hollow it became. I’m sure people were sincere, but I realized it was easy to say “I’m praying for you” but not very creative. It doesn’t take any time or thought to say that sentiment. And, please, I’m not criticizing anyone. It’s like you said, nobody really knows what to say or do. They feel helpless… they wish they could fix it for you… I determined then that I would do better than that. And I’ve developed several ways of getting better. I determined then NOT to say “I’m praying for you” but if it’s necessary to say it, I better have said something meaningful to go along with it. Know what I mean? I’ll share a couple of examples of things I’ve shared with my friend Becky’s family this past week: Becky’s husband, a believer, posted a song called “One More Time” (If I could see you one more time) and I wrote: “Spent the day with Deb O yesterday, Bill, and got caught up with more details about your journey. It was the story of God’s provision for you through His people and my heart was touched. He is near. Broken hearts were not His idea. The “One More” planned for us is not a day or time – it’s eternity. May that reality see you through. ” And then, her sister Ruthie (my roommate at BJ my freshman year) posted a photo of the last time she and Becky were together a year ago… I wrote her, “She shared a lot of the talents of her mom and her big sister, Ruthie. My heart hurts for all of you. It’s His promise of eternal life that sustains us in these separations. God is near and I know He will give you peace. Love you and plan to be there Saturday.” Not prize winning, but from the heart and possible because I have done what you said – worked to get better at these things. A hearty AMEN to your blog!

    1. Thank you, Susan! I would love your list of what to say and what not to say! I wonder if you/we could do a blog post on this. Bruce also had lots of ideas that I’d love to share, but his were more on understanding how the bereaved person feels rather than how to comfort (although it would be super helpful to understand how the bereaved person is feeling!). Let’s think about this! Would you have time to be a guest writer for a blog?

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