Joseph Baly in his book, The Last Thing we Talk About, gives some insight about the right approach. He contrasts his experience with two friends who dropped by after his child died.
“I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I knew were true. But I was unmoved, except to wish he would go away. He finally did. Another friend came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour or more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”
Less is more when speaking into grief. Here are five suggestions about how to respond.
1) Don’t fix.
Instinct tells us to say something soothing. The attempt often goes too far. People say things like, “I’m sorry you broke up, but there are many more fish in the sea;” or, “God must have loved her a lot to take her so young,” depending upon the situation. Instead, let your presence and simple affirmation have its own simple healing effect.
2) Get ’em talking
Use brief, open-ended questions; but also respect times of silence. Try not to be the one to change the subject during the crisis stage.
3) Be patient about repetition.
Sometimes people need to go over the same ground again and again. As they slowly wake up to what happened, they will likely need to fill-in the gaps. Futile speculation (“If only…”) can be part of the process. Guilt is common even if a grieving person has no responsibility. Guilt can be an escape from the intensity more painful emotions.
4) Don’t sing songs to a broken heart.
Grief is not unfaithful. It not only is a healthy response but also a holy response to the loss of human life. The shortest verse of scripture may also be the most profound: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Don’t try to subscribe faith as if it were a painkiller.
5) Remember, grief is unique.
It’s subject to abrupt, quirky turns towards fear, anger, or even humor. Stages of grief are real and expected, but moment to moment, normal is not the norm during seasons of grief.
When have you experienced just the right touch or gesture when you needed it?