Recently, a friend asked me to write more on the topic of grief, and since this particular topic is so much fun, I did. I took a stroll back down into my own valley of grief and asked some questions: What was helpful during my mother’s terminal illness? What wasn’t? What were great things kind people said to me after my dad passed away? What things could have been (and should have been) left unsaid?
As I journey back, it occurs to me that the most helpful people were those who were not afraid of me. They were comfortable enough in their own skin that they didn’t seem uneasy around me; they didn’t expect me to “get over it” and “move on,” but they also didn’t expect me to cry all the time. They treated me with grace and dignity, acknowledging that I was still, in fact, me. I am forever grateful for their wisdom and their kindness.
Here are few observations gleaned from my time spent trudging through the valley; here are some lessons learned from those who comforted and those who tried.
— Please don’t be afraid of me. Yes, I might cry. And I might laugh. And those might happen in the same sentence (although one does not necessarily precede the other, and I might switch the order around randomly just to mess with you.) Crying does not always indicate that you did or said something wrong.
— Please give me the freedom to “go there.” Or not. Tell me that you care and that you want to be sensitive to where I’m at, but feel free to say something like, “Hey, you want to just go out and have some fun? If you want to talk about it, that’s fine, and I’ll listen, but if you don’t want to go there, no problem.” A good friend gave me this type of “permission” after my mom died. We were both teenagers, but I still regard his statement as one of the most helpful, most healing, and most loving things anyone’s ever said to me.
— Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Feel free to ask me about her favorite time of year (summer) or his favorite food (ice cream), or what I miss about “home.” Please listen when something random reminds me of something random. Smile with me. Cry with me. Just please, don’t be afraid of me.
— Please realize that I do not need you to understand what I’m going through. And even if you’ve been through exactly what I’m going through, you telling me you’ve been through it just isn’t helpful. That being said, I do need you to care about what I’m going through. There is a world of difference between the statements “I care” and “I understand.” Basically, one’s helpful and the other isn’t.
— Please encourage me to remember. One lady, commenting on my prior post, said her pastor instructed her to take down the pictures of her deceased son. Please don’t be that pastor. Memories are gifts, not to be shunned or outlawed. (For more on this, see Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised.)
— Remember that grieving people are often expected to deal with their own grief on top of family members’ grief, church members’ grief, the neighbor’s grief. Please keep that in mind, and be sensitive about how you expect the grieving person to comfort you. Your loss may be very real too, and allowing the grieving person to minister to you might be healthy for both of you. But it might not be helpful for both of you. Please, just be aware and recognize if the roles of mourner and comforter flip.
— Please remember that grief isn’t forever, but it is. I won’t always sob, but I will always feel this loss deeply. I won’t always cry when that song comes on the radio, but I might. For example, the song God Moves in a Mysterious Way is forever linked to my mom’s illness and death. I cannot sing that song without missing her deeply. The song Blessed Be Your Name will always take my back to my dad’s funeral, when hundreds of people sang this song with grieving hearts, and I stood and wept. Every griever will have songs or places or foods or things or events like this. (It should be noted here that the type of deep sadness and grief that incapacitates the griever for long periods of time, or greatly interferes with normal, daily life and functioning, should be processed and felt with the help of a professional or pastoral counselor. I have gained so much from solid pastoral counseling. Also, my experiences as a volunteer with Kansas City Hospice showed me that many people, especially children and teens, need help walking through the shadowlands. If you’re a parent, please, please ensure that your child or teen gets the help he or she needs.)
— Lastly, please remember that comforting another person is a highly spiritual endeavor. When done with tons of love and a bit of awareness, you can minister to the one who’s grieving in a very real, very visceral way.
When you comfort those who mourn, you walk in the footsteps of Jesus. He is a Balm to the broken-hearted and a Comforter to the criers. He loves those who’ve lost and he looks for those who love. If you love people well, if you comfort those who grieve, don’t be surprised if Jesus starts sending folks to you. Folks who need a hug, some love, and a real life representative of Him.
He is not afraid of those who grieve. Be like him.
Jonathan Trotter is a missionary in Southeast Asia, serving with the church planting mission Team Expansion. Before moving to the field with his wife of thirteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. In preparing for the field, Jonathan worked as an ER nurse in an urban hospital, where he regularly witnessed trauma, suffering, and death. His little sister died when he was six, his mother died of breast cancer when he was seventeen, and his father died of brain cancer when he was twenty-five.