It was seven years ago, but doesn’t seem so long ago that I got the call from my sister asking if I had heard about our brother.
I knew instinctively that he had died, and it was my first experience with numbing grief. I’d never before gone basically immobile where all I could do was cry. And in the days that followed, my usually active self could barely move to serve those around me who were also grieving.
I learned a lot in those days.
We flew to Honduras to try to find his body in the beautiful lake he had disappeared into, and on the third day, as professional divers, friends, and family called it quits one more time, his body suddenly floated up to the surface right beside the boat.
The sight of my brother’s body on news headlines, being drug out of the water, was almost too much for me. We buried him on a dark mountainside in Honduras, our questions unanswered. All we knew was that he was a good swimmer, yet went under quickly.
No struggle, no resurfacing. And because we were in another country, the autopsy we desperately wanted didn’t happen.
Our questions remain unanswered. Now, when others are wrecked with grief we try to remember all we learned in those days, try to reach out to others in ways that will help them rather than hurt them even more.
A few weeks ago one of my dearest friends lost her husband. The grief was great, even for me, and I felt I needed to be there. But I remembered—did she need me now, or later? Sure enough, she told me she had lots of people at the moment and would need me in a few weeks more than now. Loving my friend best meant waiting rather than rushing into crisis.
When my cousin Susanna Kauffman died a few weeks ago, I wanted others NOT to do or say some things that had happened to us. I wanted to spare the family from questions asked at the wrong times, from news links broad casted across social media before they could even process what was happening, and from well meaning people hurting rather than helping them.
None of us always know what to do or say to someone in crisis. Do we speak or stay silent? Do we go or stay?
But as I walked personal grief and watched family members process in their own ways, I learned some things on what to do or not do. And I’d love to develop a community of well-taught believers who walk grief with others in a healing way.
1. Be okay with unanswered questions.
A funeral, memorial service, or even the days prior and after are not the days to ask a crisis family all the questions on your mind. Don’t ask numerous questions of how they died, why they died, exactly what happened, etc. Reality is not always sinking in for the family and there is plenty of time for questions to be answered in the future.
2. Be okay with just showing up.
I just walked into a room to see one of my best friends weeping, bill in her hand for $38,000 (Her husband had just lost his job along with the accompanying insurance, and his life flight alone was this much). She was playing worship music as she wept, telling me that it’s all paid for. Not by the Go Fund Me page where almost that exact amount was given, but by another source. I wrapped her up and wept with her.
Showing up can be in person or with your pocket book. Many people show up with words, yet those in crisis often need tangible presence or help more than verbal help.
You don’t have to know what to say. Most of the time you don’t need to say anything. Just show up. Just be there. Just do the thing without much ado, and make sure they are covered.
3. Don’t overwhelm weary minds with your own crisis stories.
That is not the best way to “be relatable” at a funeral. I remember standing before a long line of well-wishers, listening to someone else tell us of their own death story. We were too exhausted to stand there, much less listen to stories of another crisis. If you come to a memorial, keep your words calm, sympathetic, and short. Presence is better than speech.
4. Don’t crowd into their home after the funeral.
The family will be exhausted. They won’t need to sit for hours, answering questions and processing for or with you at that time. DO visit them in the following weeks and months as reality settles in.
5. Notice what they need, emotionally or physically.
People in crisis often find it hard to eat and even harder to cook. Take them baskets of ready made food and leave it sitting on the counter with flowers. You can come and go in a few minutes, leaving a note or a hug.
If you see a sink full of dishes, perhaps wash them quickly if the time seems right. Keep your eyes peeled for what might mean most to them.
People process differently. My friend needs quality time and someone to just sit on her couch and process with her. One of her daughters is the same, and joins us there. Her other daughter needs to move and talk, stay busy, and keep up with school work. Reality may hit her a few months down the road.
There is no right or wrong way to process grief. Don’t try to force your own way of healing onto someone else, but rather take note of each person’s make-up and go out of your way to accommodate their way of grieving. If someone needs to talk or do something, go with that flow and take them out for an activity. If they need to sit and cry, make sure your presence is there—really there.
6. Remember to mention the passed loved one in the coming months and years.
People often don’t mention someone who passed away because they don’t want to stir unnecessary grief. But the family is mourning whether or not their loved one is mentioned. A smile with a story of what you loved about the person will soothe their hearts a little. This opens the door for them to talk, process, and share about their loved one if they want to. They will probably pull out photos to share, and will love any detail you have of a pleasant memory.
It is very difficult to live a new reality. When others never mention a loved one, it can feel like you’re in your world alone.
7. Make sure all their physical needs are met.
If you see a need somewhere, just fill it. No need to ask a ton of questions. The less they have to think about and take care of, the better. They may not have the energy to thank you then, but you will be remembered as someone who truly helped. Stay tuned in for a long time, remember that months later can be more difficult than the immediate shock. Pray, stop by, and help financially or in any other way you notice they need help.
8. Don’t quote Bible verses to try to “get them out of grief”.
Be okay with grief. Cry with them. Never quote a verse about joy or say things like “Your loved one is better off with Jesus” or “You’ll see him again some day” or “Things will get better.”
Jesus stood weeping with Martha and Mary before he called Lazarus from the tomb. Even in His Godhead, where He stood ready to do the miraculous, He first made time for mourning. He didn’t have to, but He chose to.
Remember that many deaths are traumatic. Not only is a family grieving loss, often they are also trying not to remember how someone died. Pray healing over their minds—and as one friend put it to me a few weeks ago, pray that they would process what God wants them to process, and leave the rest to Him. There is grief, and there is excessive, destructive grief. Pray that they would grieve with Jesus so despair would not get in.
Let’s choose to love in ways people need us to love them. This is all about them, not about us. In this way, the God of HOPE will come into our atmospheres and change the way we sit with others in their grief.
Love to all,
“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2, ESV