Over the years, I’ve often been asked by individuals how they can most effectively help those who are most directly touched by the death of a loved one. As a result, I’ve come up with a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to dealing with grief. It is based on conversations I have had with people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with loved ones, what I have seen in over 30 years as a pastor and my own experiences with grief.
“Do’s and Don’t for Responding to Grief in the Face of Death”
Don’t try to make things better by trying to say the right thing. Nothing you say will make it better. Grief in the face of death is grief and it needs to be walked through. Cliches and platitudes like “Time heals” or “It’s God’s will” or “They are in a better place” or “God must have needed another angel” do not help people. It is not just horrifically bad theology. It often makes people feel like they shouldn’t express their pain. Do listen, say “I’m sorry,” accept silence and be present. I always say the best thing to do at the door of a grieving person is to put duct tape over your mouth before you enter, and just let them listen to your heart. That is more effective than anything else. Let them talk about what happened and express their pain.
Do respond by bringing prepared food, groceries, paper products, stamps, etc. Don’t necessarily do it right away. Sometimes people are overwhelmed with so much food right away that a great deal of it goes to waste. So call and find out if there is an immediate need to provide food for family and friends. If they have enough, take out your date book, write down a date four to eight (or more) weeks away, and on that day, call up and drop off a casserole or whatever food you’d like to share. About four to eight weeks out, people in grief are often facing the reality of the situation, and they don’t have the energy to cook, and often the prepared food means even more then. If you really want to do something right away and people are inundated with food, then drop off a gift card for a place where they can pick up food when they need it.
Don’t say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” This bad theology blames God for the brokenness of the world. God gives us the strength to bear what the world gives, but God hated death so much, Jesus died and rose again to keep death from having the final word. God doesn’t give us pain or cause death, God holds us in our pain and redeems death with eternal life. Do let them know that you will be praying for them and that if they need to cry, you are willing to hold them not just in prayer, but be present in their pain.
Don’t be afraid to mention the name of the person who died. Some people are afraid, a few weeks or months after a death, to talk about the person for fear that they will remind them of that person. Trust me, if you love someone and they die, you don’t forget them. They are always in your heart. So you welcome the opportunity to talk about them and their feelings, which will often be full of both laughter and tears. Do share memories, laughter, and let the griever know that the person who died is not forgotten. And crying is OK. One really helpful thing is to put the birthdate or the anniversary of the loved one’s death in your calendar and send them a text or give them a call around that time or that day to tell them you are thinking of them or share a memory of the person who died.
Don’t say, “Give me a call if you need anything.” The person who is grieving doesn’t have the energy to do that. It puts the ball in their court. Do be specific about what you can do — bring over dinner, offer to take the kids, plan an evening out with the person, offer to help clean or go for a walk. And if you offer, then do it. Saying, “I’ll call you later” and not following through is not helpful. Be sincere and do what you say you’ll do.
Don’t avoid the grieving person. That sounds obvious, but a lot of times people who are grieving say they feel like pariahs because people won’t look at them or talk to them. And don’t assume that if they are smiling that things are better. The person may not be smiling inside. Do ask how they are doing six to eight weeks later. Then be prepared to listen to what they have to say. I am always bemused when people ask me “How is “so and so” doing?” I usually respond by saying, if you want to know, they would probably appreciate it if you asked them. Do call up and say, “I was just thinking about you.” Do write notes or send a text and keep in contact.
Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Every grief experience is different. Do say, “I’m here. I care. Anytime, anywhere. I’ll cry with you if you need that. I’ll talk about your loved one. I’ll laugh. I won’t mind how long you grieve or how you grieve. I won’t tell you to pull yourself together or get on with life. I’ll be there for you” People never “recover” from death, any more than a person who loses a leg grows it back.You rehabilitate. You learn to live without the leg or the person you lost. So just be there during that rehabilitation process, as a crutch to lean on as they learn to walk in the world without the one they loved.
As a final note, if you read this and say, “Oh, no, I blew it when I did …” Don’t worry about it. Grievers won’t hold it against you. There is a lot of grace when love is shown, and that is something on which we all need to rely. Because love alone abides, so above all else, Do rely on the grace of God.