It started out as a normal Friday morning in February. My husband was showing some alarming symptoms, so we went to the hospital. By early afternoon, I was a widow. At the time of my husband’s death, our son was 14 months old, and I was 18 weeks pregnant with our second son. Losing my husband so unexpectedly felt like I had sustained a gaping chest wound the size of a basketball.
The days and weeks that followed this devastating blow were a whirlwind. Dealing with death brings on a tornado of raw emotions. The aftermath is chaos for those closest to the bereaved and awkward for those looking in. I could easily sense how uncomfortable people felt around me. If the roles had been reversed, like them I would have wondered, What should I say? What should I do? I want to help, but I have no idea how. The vast majority of people were very kind and helpful. And among all those thoughtful people, some really nailed it.
I would like to share some of my experiences so that if you know someone who is dealing with a tragic loss, you might have a better idea of how to help.
Three concepts that I stumbled upon are mirroring, offering specific help, and avoiding giving advice. Please keep in mind that I’m only a few months into the grieving process, and that everyone grieves differently. So what I share may not be helpful for every person.
Mirror the Grieving Person
Let the grieving person lead the attitude and emotional state of your interaction in social situations. This is especially important during the first few days or weeks following a tragedy. So if the grieving individual is somber, be somber with her. If the person wants to chat, then chat. If he wants to sit in silence, follow his lead. Don’t feel like you are less of a friend if the grieving person wants to have an ordinary conversation with you. I felt comfortable crying and grieving with some people, while others were a welcome distraction from my pain. Both roles are important. Being able to take a step away from the tragedy and have a normal interaction was just as cathartic as breaking down in tears.
When interacting with the grieving person, try to reflect her body language, especially at the visitation and funeral. Think basic nonverbal communication. Match the person when she moves toward you and when she moves away. When giving a hug, let the grieving person decide the type and length of the hug. In my experience, I felt uncomfortable when someone would hold onto me much longer than I wanted; I would try to move away but couldn’t. It is likely the grieving person has hugged dozens if not hundreds of people already. If you didn’t have a close relationship before the tragedy, your hug may be more for you than for the grieving person.
Offer Specific Help
I have been fortunate to have many people offer to help. I can’t even fathom how many people said, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” That is a kind thing to say. However, it is general, and the grieving person may not be able to immediately process what kind of help she needs. So I found it extremely helpful when people would offer specific forms of help. A church member who watched her grandkids every Tuesday offered to watch my son on those days. That was outstanding. I was able to schedule my doctor appointments and my grief counseling on those Tuesdays because I knew I had someone to watch my son.
When offering help, be clear and precise. Make it easy for the person to accept or decline the offer. Also, consider the timing. I couldn’t process help that was offered at the visitation or funeral. It was more helpful a week or two later.
Here are some examples of making your offer of help more specific:
- Instead of “I’d love to help; let me know what I can do,” say, “Would you like help with household chores?”
- Instead of “I’m here if you need me,” say, “I would like to take you out to lunch next week.”
- Instead of “Let me know if you need a meal,” say, “Could I bring you a meal tomorrow?”
- Instead of “I can come over if you don’t want to be alone,” say, “I’m free on Thursdays if you would like company.”
Avoid Giving Advice
Very few of us are comfortable with death, and sometimes we talk or give advice to cover up our discomfort. But in my experience, less is more when it comes to words. My wound is my wound; each person’s pain is unique. It is unlikely that others can comprehend what the grieving person is feeling. So keep in mind that giving advice or quoting Scripture may not be well received immediately following a tragedy. The grieving person may not process or remember anything you say at that time. If you feel strongly that you have some valuable advice to share, include it in a card or note. That way she can choose when to read it and how to use it.
My favorite memory of the visitation was when one of my husband’s acquaintances approached me with a strange question. It was obvious that he felt uncomfortable around me and had no idea what to do. Most people said things like, “You have my sympathies,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” This guy walked up to me and asked me about a pizza roll recipe I had made years ago. At that moment, I thought, I will gladly talk to you about something other than my dead husband! It was a slight moment of refreshing distraction. I’m not recommending that you ask for a recipe at a visitation or funeral, but it was hilarious and it illustrates the state of mind I was in. When my mind couldn’t process the advice people gave, this interaction stands out as memorable.
We can glean a lot of useful information about dealing with a grieving person by looking at the book of Job. Job’s three friends sat with him for a full week in shared, silent grief. But after that first week, his friends filled the air with high-sounding advice. They offered models of what not to say. Their arguments only made Job feel worse, and in the end God dismissed those friends with a scowl. As it turned out, compassionate silence was the most profound way to help Job deal with the tragedy.
Death is awful, but God is faithful. Death is painful for everyone, but God’s people who showed me love reflect God, my ultimate comfort. I may be wounded, but I know the omnipotent Healer, and I have seen the love of Christ through countless people. Being on the receiving end of the visitation line gave me a new perspective about walking alongside a grieving person.
About the Author
Kari Poortinga is a member of Community CRC in Indiana. She works part-time at a residential treatment facility for teenagers, where she leads equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions.