When I was in college I got a phone call in the middle of the night from one of my besties. She was crying so hard it took me a few full minutes to untangle her words and realize that her mother had died suddenly of a Brain Aneurism.
I remember in the season that followed learning the incredible pain of caring for the grieving. I remember the horrible feelings of being out of control, of watching someone you love hurt. I remember thinking, perhaps naively, let me take this pain from her.
This post is written with compassion for the unique pain that comes with caring for the grieving. I know that hurting people can be unpredictable and uncommunicative or even unaware of what they need. If you’re looking for practical ways to love the hurting, here are some things that have helped me:
#1: Becoming comfortable with not knowing what to do
I said in the last post that no grief is the same. If that’s true, then there is no formula I can give you in this blog post. There is no learning how to fix pain for people.
I don’t know how to care for those who lose a parent because I’ve lost my dad. I don’t know what I need in month 9 of grief because I figured out month 1. The learning curve is constantly resetting and impossible to master.
And that’s not bad news for us caregivers. Because, it places us in a constant place of listening and learning and seeking to understand. It prevents us from projecting our own pain and keeps ‘fixing’ off the menu. Some of the sweetest gifts I have received in grief are friends who are willing to learn me every single day; who are willing to let go of what worked or didn’t work yesterday and start over today.
That same bestie I mentioned above never forgets the anniversary of my Dad’s death. A friend who has lost her dad too always texts me on Father’s Day, on anniversaries, on birthday’s. Getting those texts, year after year, helps me believe that God sees me. That I’m not alone.
#3: Ask specific questions
After my dad died, I used to dread the question “How are you?”
If I didn’t know the person well, it was not appropriate to answer that question honestly. And if I did know the person well, the question made me feel unknown: how do you think I am? One thing that helped me was specific questions that assumed ‘hard’. EG:
- What stage of grief are you been experiencing these days?
- On a scale of 1-10 how are you feeling emotionally today? Spiritually?
- What would be helpful to you in your grief right now?
#3: Validate every unique loss
We each have a hierarchy of grief in our minds. Eg: loss of a child > loss of a parent or loss of a family member > loss of a friend.
But let me tell you: grief isn’t in the loop on your hierarchy. My grief doesn’t know it’s supposed to hurt less because I had time to say goodbye. My grief doesn’t know it’s supposed to be less painful because I wasn’t related by blood.
I could not be more thankful for friends who don’t care about the number of people ahead of me in the line of grief. I would have suppressed or avoided grief if they hadn’t been willing to lovingly force me to face my own loss.
If grief exists, it must be experienced. Where grief dwells, there is a wound that needs washing. And you as a friend can help ensure that process doesn’t get short-circuited. Table your own hierarchy. Fight the temptation to base your compassion on your own perception of how severe the loss seems.
I am not afraid to cry or speak about grief in front of others. But there is a version of grief I have not yet found a way to invite others into. It’s the kind where pain seizes you and there is no control, no speaking, no consideration for anything around you; where breathing is cannibalized by sobs.
There have been times where people have entered into those depths with me: a friend who got caught in an unexpected down pour of grief one night in a parking lot. My friend Anita, whose hand I clutched as we walked toward the body of her husband with no capacity to consider self or one another as our voices wailed out loud for Jesus to help us. The poor cop who pulled over when he saw a car stopped on the side of the road, and shined his flash light into the face of a weeping and inconsolable woman. And even though months and months had passed, all I could say in way of explanation was: my friend just died. My friend Annie, who ignored my insistence that I was ‘fine’ and pushed her way into my room in one of the darker moments of my life and held me while I my whole soul turned inside out.
Those people: strangers and friends – none were invited into those moments. Circumstance thrust them upon me. I wonder, maybe, if in the darkest grief you don’t have the capacity to reach out and invite.
Even now, I can’t tell you if I wanted them there or not. If I’d had the choice in those moments – I don’t know if I would have rather been alone. All I know is that I wasn’t alone. And at the end of the day – I think that is the best gift you can give in grief.