The do’s and don’ts of helping the hurting.
by Virginia Jelinek
“I looked for . . . comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20).
The day my husband, John, and I traveled homeward from a trip, our car lost traction on a slippery road. We were hit by an oncoming van.
My life forever changed that day. In a split-second, my husband was dead.
Friends rushed to my side to help. People extended sympathy, sending cards and flowers, providing food, and offering prayers. Then, funeral over, most people retreated to their own busy lives. I felt alone and frightened.
The sudden loss of support that grievers experience after a funeral is common, even though, as one grief therapist said, “Being present as a comforter is more important to the griever in the aftermath of the funeral than during it.”
Why, then, are the bereaved soon forgotten? First, consolers return to their routines, their busy schedules, quickly erasing thoughts of the griever. Second, people shy away from those who are grieving, feeling awkward and inept in their presence. “I don’t know how to comfort a grieving person, what to say — or not to say.”
From interviews with grief therapists and the bereaved, and through my own experience, I have found five fundamentals essential to doing the work of comforting. Hopefully, reviewing them will motivate and inspire confidence in those desiring to minister to the grief-stricken.
Compassion and understanding
True compassion lies at the heart of comforting. However, compassion can run dry like a well without some understanding of the grieving process.
My friend Melody lived in another state. After John’s passing, she kept in touch via e-mail. Somewhere along the way, through my correspondence, I must have convinced Melody that I was coping well with grief. Her e-mails ceased.
Months later, depression hit me hard. Knowing Melody to be a compassionate, praying woman, I emailed her of my despair. I anxiously awaited her response, wanting her comfort.
I read her reply in disbelief. Its scolding words admonished me to regroup, snap out of my despair, and be the strong woman she knew me to be.
She meant well, of course. Looking back, I realize what I didn’t see then. Melody’s lack of understanding about grief’s process overrode the compassion I had come to expect from her.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) reveal the horrific range of emotions a mourner may experience. Some, but not all, pass through every stage. Others get stuck revisiting previous stages until they can finally let go and accept their new lot in life. Caring people like Melody can glean helpful insight into the grieving process by visiting www.davidkessler.org.
Karen, recently widowed, confided, “When people ask how I’m doing, I respond, ‘I’m fine.’ That’s what they want to hear. They seem impatient for me to be moving on — to act ‘normal’ again.”
It’s difficult to stand by helplessly and watch someone grieve. Human nature wants to step in, to fix things, to make pain stop. Trying to rush, talk, or wrench the bereaved out of grief’s hold, however, will only postpone, lengthen, and strengthen it.
Grief counselors say grief’s duration and intensity are highly personalized. One’s individuality; the role the deceased had (spouse, child, parent); the type of death (unexpected, tragic, or by natural causes) play a part.
Grief has no timeline. It’s a constant roller coaster of emotional ups and downs, progressions and regressions. Some days I felt grief to be a living force that had swallowed me alive, because I couldn’t sense anything but it. Then out of the blue would come a morning laced with bits of grace. I’d wake up feeling half decent, giving me hope. Great! I’d think. I’m done grieving; I shook it off. But the very next day I’d awaken under a mantel of grief so heavy, I could barely crawl out of bed.
It’s difficult while in the grieving process to believe that healing will come. Thank God, it does. So yes, grief is temporal, but it’s also wise to understand that in another sense, as one therapist says, “Grief lasts a lifetime.” True words, considering that when someone dies, the love that person shared with the still-existing person doesn’t die; it lives on — painfully at first, metamorphosing as time passes into a sweet sorrow, full of memories that in themselves bring comfort.
A safe place to mourn
Like cooking stew without a fire, so is grieving without mourning; it won’t “get done.” Many therapists describe grieving as internal (thoughts and feelings), while mourning is the outward expression of our internal grief. Both are necessary to the grieving process.
Public mourning, once considered normal behavior in our culture, is discouraged today. Society prefers that people hide their emotions behind a brave façade and do their mourning away from the public eye.
So grievers have little recourse but to mourn at home — alone. I personally found that suffocating at times. I needed what all grievers require: safe zones — people or places — where mourning is acceptable and even encouraged.
A trusted comforter is a safe zone — one who can open the door for mourning to happen. Doing the work of Romans 12:15, “Mourn with those who mourn” (NIV; some versions read, “Weep with those who weep”) necessitates the comforter’s willingness to emotionally participate in the bereaved one’s sorrow, as if it were his own.
A private setting where emotions do not have to be held in check is conducive to mourning. Encouraging the bereaved to talk of the deceased or their anguish, if they feel comfortable doing so, generally leads to visible acts of mourning.
“Isn’t talking about the deceased too painful for grievers?” some question. Possibly. But even if grievers aren’t open to talking about their loss, be assured they’ll appreciate your offering them an opportunity to communicate. Your asking indicates you genuinely sense the significance of their loss; you respect that their deceased one’s life mattered — as it always will.
I discovered talking about my loss therapeutic, giving me emotional release. Regrettably, few offered me this gift. As a result, I lacked occasions to openly mourn.
The ministry of comforting involves commitment, just as any ministry requires.
Well-intentioned people at the funeral told me, “Call me if you need me,” but I doubted the sincerity of some. Extending ambiguous offers may make the asker feel good, but to the bereaved, the words sound hollow, lacking promise and commitment.
Grief can be paralyzing, numbing the griever, making something as simple as a phone call overwhelming. Also, bereaved persons often turn down offers because they fear their neediness could be burdensome to others.
For example, I found weekends extremely difficult. All around were families spending time together, reminding me of the companionship I now lacked. Of course, my children had invited me to join their activities, but I respected the precious little time they had with their own families. So I spent weekends distancing myself from them (and others) to insure my needs didn’t burden people.
My reluctance back then to accept offers has helped me understand that as a committed comforter, I must be persistent in offering help. Rather than, “Call me if you need me,” I may say something like, “I’ll be calling you weekly to ask what I can do to help.” Even if the response is “That’s not necessary,” I emphasize, “I really want to do this.” Then, I do it. My follow-up actions will prove my offer genuine.
The bereaved are locked into a season of life where grieving and mourning fill their days. Your action — whether through a visit, helpful deed, phone call, greeting card, e-mail, or faithful prayers — speaks your commitment.
The first year following the deceased’s death holds many firsts: the first holiday season without the loved one, the first missed birthday, the anniversary of this — or that. Each emphasizes the deceased’s absence and offers a time to extend comfort.
Unfortunately, upon completion of year one, an “all clear” horn doesn’t sound, signaling grief’s end. So committed comforters should remain in touch, continuing to be a voice of hope. God’s promise holds ever true: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
God also promises comfort while awaiting joy’s return. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And blessed are those who have the privilege of giving that comfort!
The work of comforting is not to make grief disappear or provide answers or counsel. Keep it simple. Give what you have: compassion, understanding, and committed support.
It’s precisely what the bereaved need.
Scripture quotations taken from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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