We live in a broken world full of pain and suffering and difficulties. At some point, and often many times over, every one of us is going to face tragedy in our lives. Whether it be the loss of a loved one, the collapse of a marriage, the miscarriage of a child, the dissolving of a relationship, the ending of a career, or the death of a dream, we all will experience loss. Despite the fact that loss is a shared and common experience, many of us feel uncertain of what to do when someone close to us is going through a season of pain and grief. We fear saying the wrong thing or fumbling our words of sympathy. Maybe we are worried about adding to or minimizing the person’s pain by doing the wrong thing. Perhaps we simply feel uncomfortable or unable to relate because their loss feels greater than the ones we’ve suffered. There is not one single right answer for how we can offer support to our loved ones in their tragic seasons. But one thing we must absolutely not do is to allow fear to immobilize us and thus do nothing. Pain and trauma and tragedy are already lonely and isolating. When we do nothing, we reinforce the lie to our loved one that they are utterly alone. We cannot change what they’ve lost, but we can ensure that they are not alone in it.
The first way we can support them is to acknowledge their pain. This may look like simply saying “I’m so incredibly sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine how much this hurts”. Although we often don’t realize we need it, having someone bear witness to our sorrow can provide a small measure of safety and relief. Hearing from someone that they recognize the enormity of what we have lost validates how important that thing or person was to us. Another way we can show support is by reminding the person that we love them and finding ways to put that love into action. If it’s someone you know well, then hopefully you have an idea of what makes them feel loved. Are they an acts of service person? Offer to clean their house or pick up their groceries, or bring them their favorite meal. Simple things like eating and cleaning can feel overwhelming amidst seasons of grief, so offering practical help in this way can help offload that burden. Do they typically light up with words of affirmation? Write them a note telling them how wonderful they are and that you believe in them and will be there for them through the storm.
One thing to be aware of is that it’s rarely helpful to say trite things in an attempt to “make sense of” or normalize grief. Examples of this would be saying something like “everything happens for a reason but only God knows the reason”, or “God will never give you more than you can handle” (the latter is a lie, by the way). Statements like these do not convey compassion, but rather put the burden on the person grieving to try to suck it up and pull themselves together and replace their sorrow with blind faith. They offer no comfort; instead, they indirectly imply that we should just be okay with loss and accept it. This not only makes the person feel judged in their pain, but it short circuits the grief process as there are many feelings that need to be felt over long periods of time to even possibly arrive at a place of acceptance. Holding space for all of the person’s feelings and acknowledging the hurt and brokenness of their situation without trying to tie it all up in a nice, manageable package is a much kinder way to respond. Allow them permission to be fully themselves around you and to feel whatever they need to feel: anger, betrayal, indignation, devastation, heartache, rage, doubt, hopelessness. This will provide greater safety and support than any trite platitude ever could.
By Chelsea Wisley