While interviewing a handful of people for a story about a shower truck ministry for the homeless in our community, I met Dan. He was one of the men who helped design and build shower rooms in the truck—one for women and one for men.
Dan, a widower, answered my interview questions. And then the conversation turned to grief and our common experiences as long-term cancer caregivers. The next hour flew by, neither of us aware of the afternoon slipping away.
Dan teared up a couple times and seemed almost apologetic. “I’m not normally an emotional guy,” he said as he wiped away grief that was leaking from his eyes. “Just when I think I’m doing better, the tears come out of nowhere.”
We both have a common love for outdoor activity, and so Dan and I started hiking some of the local trails together. I continued asking questions about his deceased wife and how his adult children were handling their loss. And he asked questions about my experience and how I had managed the grief after my husband, Gary, died.
Dan told me it was good to talk with someone who understood what he was experiencing. And I thanked him for making it easy for me to share memories of Gary.
There are a number of sorrowful events that put us at a loss for words when our friends, family, and co-workers are ambushed. Divorce. Unemployment. Loss of a child to addictions. A terminal diagnosis. Miscarriage and infertility. Loss of a loved one to ALS, Alzheimer’s, cancer.
What does it look like to be present for sufferers? The first thing we need to understand is, it’s not a once-and-done thing. Endurance, compassion, and deep selflessness required.
In no particular order, here are 8 ways to be a comfort to our people in their grief.
- Be available
I recently heard a young woman tell of packing up her laptop every morning and spreading her work out over her friend’s dining room table. Her friend’s husband had died unexpectedly—too young, too soon—and this woman was simply making herself available for her friend. Day after day. I’m here for you if you want to talk. I’m here for you if you don’t want to talk. You are not alone.
2. Listen well
There’s a name for those who ask questions in the face of loss. Psychologists refer to them as openers.
“Unlike non-question-asking friends, openers ask … and listen to the answers without judging,” wrote Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg in their book, Option B.
Asking questions and listening well is a priceless gift to the one grieving—especially to those who tend to hold things in:
• Tell me about your loved one. What are some of your favorite memories?
• You two had an amazing marriage, but I would imagine it wasn’t long enough. How’s your heart?
• What coping skills have you used in the past to help you through difficult things?
Disclaimer: for those of us who are question-askers by nature, follow the leading of the griever. Don’t assume that everyone will want to talk about their loss.
3. Say something
Shauna Niequist, in her book Bittersweet, writes about losing her job at her church, feeling embarrassed and hurt and tender, and remembering exactly who walked the other direction when they saw her and who walked toward her.
“If you don’t know what to say,” Niequist advised, “try this: ‘I heard what happened, and I don’t know what to say.’”
4. Avoid clichés
Avoid platitudes or positive-thinking comments at all cost: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or, “Be grateful for the years you were married.”
Speaking from experience, these aren’t even remotely helpful. Instead, ask the griever about the loss: “What was it like?”
5. Validate the sufferer
Nanea Hoffman said: “In case you need to hear this: What happened was real. Your feelings are valid. You are entitled to heal in whatever way you need and in your own time. You are not alone, even if it feels that way. You are necessary in this world. I see you.”
This is the attitude I’ve embraced as I connect with people suffering irreversible loss.
6. Don’t try to fix anything
It’s not necessarily comfortable to hang out with people in their grief. Because we feel helpless to fix their pain. But we’re not called to fix anything.
Widows and widowers need and want to be listened to. This thought from Grief Recovery Method: “The most loving thing you can do is listen to them without judgment, comparison, or trying to fix them.”
7. This isn’t helpful: “Let me know if you need anything.”
Instead, if you live close enough, be specific with how you’d like to offer support:
• “I can’t imagine how exhausting this must be. May I come over and clean your house this Saturday?”
• “How about I pick your kids up after school for frozen yogurt and a play date?”
• “We’re coming by this afternoon to shovel your driveway and sidewalks.”
• “I’d like to bring dinner. What is your family’s favorite pizza?”
8. Extend Godly comfort
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the believers in Corinth and included these thoughts: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV
Judging by the number of times the word comfort appears in these two verses, this concept surely must be important to God. Our losses are not all the same. But we’ve all known God’s comfort as we’ve allowed it in and not pushed it away. And that makes us eligible to extend that same comfort toward others walking a hard road.
It wasn’t until a recent conversation with one of my brothers-in-law that I realized more fully the two-way gift my new friend, Dan, and I were extending to each other—the gift of listening, of inviting remembrances and stories.
My brother-in-law lost his wife in a tragic accident just six months after they were married. When he started dating the girl who is now my lovely sister-in-law, she asked a lot of questions about his first wife. My brother-in-law said, “I remember how good it felt to be able to talk about Tracey with someone who seemed interested.”
This thought-provoking quote from Ashley Davis Bush: “We live in a world that doesn’t like pain. We too might be tempted to turn from it, to keep the stiff upper lip. But grief asks us to touch pain, to sit with pain and to ask it to tea. Being with your sorrow is brave. It is counter-culture courage.”
What if we could sit with our sorrow, and not try to hold back the tears? We can.
What if we could sit with someone else in their sorrow, and ask appropriate questions, and listen well, and spread our work on their dining table so they’re not alone, and validate their suffering, and not try to fix anything, and offer godly comfort? We can. All this. Endurance, compassion and strength required.
A cancer widow, speaker, and award-winning writer, Marlys Johnson would rather lace up hiking boots than go shopping. Marlys has a passion for repurposing old junk into cool new stuff. And an even greater passion for showing people how to navigate life’s challenges. Marlys blogs at www.RenewRepurpose.com