“Helping Others with their Loss”
THE PRAYER: Dear Lord, in this hectic world, it’s easy to become disconnected from those around us. Help me remember to slow down and reach out to others. Open my eyes to the opportunities You place before me today to be a caring hand or a listening ear. Amen.
“I would like to help. I really would. But I just don’t know what to say. I’m sure I say too much and, sometimes I think, what I say hurts more than it helps. So, most of the time, I stay away and don’t do anything at all.”
An uncommon response? No.
It’s probably the most common feeling of frustration we experience when a friend or loved one is going through a loss experience. We all struggle with what to say, how to say it and when to respond. But it is possible to learn how to minister to others in a way that is supportive and caring. Most Christians have never been given any help or guidelines on what to do or say at the time of a loss. And that is precisely why people either withdraw, or say too much or say inappropriate comments.
Here are 4 situations to think about:
Your closest friend just discovered that her spouse is suddenly filing for divorce. You go to their home. What do you say or do?
One of your co-workers comes into your office, sits down, and looking very dejected tells you that after 23 years of loyal service to the company, he was just fired and will lose his health insurance as well. What do you say at a time like this?
A teenager in your family comes home, slams the front door, heads for her room, slams the bedroom door and now you can hear her sobbing. A few minutes later the teen comes out still crying and tells you, “I just got dumped for another girl. Jim and I went together for 6 months and now just before my senior prom, I’m dumped just like a piece of trash. I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
You’re at a funeral for your cousin who was very special to you. You approach your cousin’s spouse at the family get-together after the service. What do you say to this bereaved person?
You will need to acknowledge that a loss has occurred in this person’s life and see it with the person’s eyes rather than your own.
There are 4 major “DO NOTS” which need to be followed:
- Do not withdraw from the relative or friend.
- Do not compare, evaluate or judge the person or his/her responses.
- Do not look for sympathy for yourself.
- Do not patronize the person.
1) Do not withdraw: In the case of any loss, a person needs continuing, ongoing support from a number of people. Often the support we give is out of proportion. When there is a death the bereaved person is often inundated by people, calls and cards. But two weeks later, the person feels like a social outcast. Nobody calls, nobody writes. Perhaps you could send your condolence card late and tell the griever that you intentionally did so because you figure it’s getting quiet around them by now. Because to the griever it seems as though the whole world has gone merrily on its way, leaving the person alone and behind. This creates a tremendous feeling of isolation. The bereaved person needs comfort on a consistent basis. If you have a memory of the deceased, write it down in your condolence card, even if you only remember “her lovely smile” or “his sparkling eyes and sense of humor”. The griever needs to be able to talk over what has occurred and to reminisce and remember.
In losses like death, divorce or accident/illness there are major decisions that need to be made. In all types of loss a support group may be needed immediately.
2) Do not compare: When you see your friend or relative, the most basic response is to ask how the person is doing and feeling. A simple, “How are you doing? It’s been 10 days since you lost … How are you feeling?”, will open the door. The important thing then is to let the person talk without comparing, evaluating or judging.
Here are some of the statements to avoid:
- I don’t understand why you’re still crying. Life goes on, you know.
- Look, you only lost your stepfather. What about your mother? She has a greater loss than you and she’s pulled herself together.
- No one should feel that way about losing a cat. It’s only an animal. You had it for 10 great years and now you can get another kitty.
- This will make your family closer. It’s an opportunity to grow together.
- Don’t you appreciate what you have left?
- You’ve started out in new jobs before, so just look at this layoff as a great opportunity – like George did when he got fired.
Other frequent statements that too many grievers have had to hear, are:
- Don’t cry.
- You must be brave now.
- You’ll get over it in a couple of weeks.
- You shouldn’t feel that way. After all, you have the Lord.
- It’s time to pull yourself together. You wouldn’t want mother seeing you that way, would you?
- Your spouse/child/friend wouldn’t want you to be this unhappy.
- The past needs to be put behind us. Let’s move on to the future with God.
- It went fast and so at least he/she didn’t have to suffer.
- Well, just be glad it wasn’t your only child.
- Look at it this way: Losing your husband this young and without children will make it easier for you to handle.
- Everyone dies sooner or later. He just died sooner.
- The children need you to be strong.
Statements like these don’t help or comfort. They only intensify the person’s feeling of loss and despair.
Sometimes people take an, “It could have been worse” approach to their grieving friend in the hopes of lessening the hurt. Unfortunately, at this point in time it doesn’t work.
3) The third “Do Not” involves eliciting sympathy for yourself. It sounds strange but it does happen more often than not. Some people talk more about their own sense of loss and grief, past and present, in an effort to express their sorrow and empathy. But you cannot expect the other person to help you at this time. This is a time for you to give, not receive. If YOU need assistance, get it from somebody else.
4) Have you ever felt patronized by another person? You know what that feels like, don’t you? You end up feeling dependent and belittled. You begin to wallow in self-pity, and you feel worse than before you interacted with this “helpful” person. Any kind of condescending response or behavior tends to reinforce the hurting feelings and basically shows that we really don’t care as much as we say.
There are several positive guidelines to follow in ministering to a friend, relative or neighbor.
1) The first step is simply accepting what has happened and how the person is responding. You may have your own perspective as to what the person should be doing or how he or she should be responding. Revise your expectations. You are not the other person.
Accept them and let them know their feelings are normal.
Some are going to apologize to you for their tears, or their depression or their anger. You will hear comments like, “I can’t believe I’m still crying like this. I’m so sorry.” – Or –
“I don’t know why I’m so upset. It was unfair letting me go like that, after 15 years at that job.
I know I shouldn’t be angry, but I guess I really am. It seems so unfair.”
You can be an encourager by accepting their feelings. Give them the gift of facing their feelings and expressing them. There are many statements that you can make to them.
- “I don’t want you to worry about crying in front of me. It is hard to feel this sad and not express it in tears. You may find me crying with you at times.”
- “If I had experienced what you have been through, I would feel like crying, too.”
- “If I didn’t see you cry, I would be more concerned!”
- “I hope you feel the freedom to express your sorrow in tears in front of me. I won’t be embarrassed or upset. I just want to be here with you.”
2) Anger is another feeling that is difficult for many people to express. Use comments like:
- “It is natural to feel anger and hostility toward everyone and everything that had to do with your husband’s death. I feel angry, too.”
- “You must be very angry that your baby has suffered, and you can do nothing about it.”
- “It is normal and reasonable to be angry and resentful when you have lost your baby, and others have lively and healthy babies.”
- “You have lost your daughter and you have a right to be angry and frustrated.”
- “It must be hard to find the words to express your anger, helplessness and frustration.”
- “It is important that you allow yourself to express your anger and rage no matter how much others try to discourage you.”
Your encouragement to express feelings will help the grieving person understand that their expression will not cause you to withdraw from them. Reassure them that you are neither going to leave because of their feelings, nor try to talk them out of feeling the way they do. Your support is going to remain.
3) Touch is another positive way of responding. But be sensitive to the person you’re ministering to. He/she may not be as comfortable with touch as you are. If they seem to reject your physical gestures such as hugs or touch, be sure to respect them. If you extend a hand on the shoulder and they stiffen up, it’s a good indication that your brief words and physical presence will help more than touch.
4) Sometimes it helps just to say, “I’ll be here with you for a while. When you prefer to be alone, or need me to do something for you, please, let me know and I’ll do it.” Never assume they don’t need you. Find out by talking with them.
5) One of the greatest gifts that you can give to a hurting, grieving person is the gift of listening.
We are called to be listeners.
As James says, “Take note of this: Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” (James 1:19)
Listening is a fine art. It is a gift of spiritual significance you can learn to give to others.
In Proverbs 20:12 we read, “Ears that hear and eyes that see – the Lord has made them both.”
When you listen to others you give them a sense of importance, hope and love that they may not receive any other way. Through listening we validate the feelings of others especially when they are experiencing difficulties in life.
Listening is giving sharp attention to what someone else is sharing with you. Notice that we didn’t say “what someone else is saying to you”. Often what people share with us is more than what they say. We must listen to the total person, not just to the words he or she speaks.
Listening is an expression of love. It involves caring enough to take seriously what another person is communicating. When you listen lovingly, you invite that person into your life as a guest. When people know you hear them, they will trust you and feel safe with you.
Since the God calls each of us to be a “quick listener”, we must understand what it means to listen.
There is a difference between listening and hearing.
- Hearing is basically to gain information for your own purposes.
In hearing you are concerned about what is going on inside you during a conversation. You’re tuned into your own reactions, responses, thoughts and feelings.
- Listening means caring for the person you are listening to. In listening you are trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of the one speaking. You are listening for the person’s sake, not your own. You are not thinking about what you are going to say when the other person stops talking. You are not busy formulating your own response.
You are concentrating on what is being said.
As you listen, you are going to hear the same expression again and again. Grieving people have a compelling need to retell the details of their loss, whether it be the loss of a pet, a job, a home, a miscarriage, or a person. They want to talk about the who, what, when and how. The details vary depending on the nature of the loss. This helps them to anchor, to get a grip, to establish some sort of order, especially if the loss was sudden and devastating.
And remember, a person tends to focus so much upon the details and final conversations with someone they lost because it gives them an opportunity to hold on to whatever they lost. Don’t be put off by the details of the story, even though you may know them by heart. This telling of details goes on for 3 or 4 months until they are assured that they will not lose the memory of the person they lost. When they reach that point, the clinging to exact details will lessen. They are beginning to “let go” a bit.
And when they express the details, encourage them to express the accompanying feelings as well. Their feelings will be relieved as you listen without shock, embarrassment or judgment.
Often in the case of an accident, or loss of an important position, or death, you will hear the person taking responsibility for what occurred even when they had no responsibility, nor could have done anything about what happened. This is an opportunity for you to say something like: “What could you really have done to prevent that from happening?”
But before you make statements such as these help them identify all of their “if only” and “regret” statements that were discussed in an earlier sessions #6, and in chapter 5 of your book.
6) Above all, don’t say too much to the hurting person. Your presence speaks volumes.
7) Even if we find ourselves struggling with what to say, an occasional written note or card is a wonderful way to comfort a griever. You can send personal words of comfort, quotes, poems, and the Word of God. You have a number of scripture verses printed in your book which would be very helpful in such an occasion. Chapter 11, page 189
8) If there is one character quality that is so necessary in ministering to a grieving person, it is patience. You will hear the same story, same details, the same tears again and again. This is normal and necessary. What may be quite uncomfortable for you is anger. The extent of the person’s anger may cause you to want to say, “Enough!”, but it is a natural healthy response if it is within reasonable bounds.
You may even become the target for the person’s anger. If they withdraw and clam up, don’t push them. This is part of grief. It is as though they move in and out of the real world.
They will progress at their own pace and not yours.
9) In your book ‘Recovering from the Losses of Life’, chapter 11, starting on page 194, you will find 9 other practical suggestions in helping a person who has lost a loved one in death.
But, please, remember to allow time.
Decide what you are willing and able to do for the person, realizing that you can neither do it all, nor should you. Do not tell a grieving person to call you when they need anything – they NEVER will! Contact the person (don’t wait for the griever to contact you) and offer to do one of the jobs you have chosen, and if the person rejects your offer, suggest another.
One of the most helpful guidelines on how to minister to another person, comes from “What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say”, by Lauren Briggs (Harvest House). You will find this printed in your book starting on page 198. Try to almost ‘memorize’ this text so it will truly be yours when you need to reach out and minister to another person.
Today, at the end of our grief recovery course, I am asking you to study chapter 11 in your book “Recovering from the Losses of Life”. Again, I invite you to come to church and to P.R.A.Y. – Personal Relationship Awaits You!
Let’s close with prayer:
MEETING GOD ON THE MOUNTAIN, by Mary Anna Vidakovich
What do we do when the (our) earth shakes,
The (our) mountains split in two,
And the (our) sun and the (our) moon go dark?
We will do exactly what we should do every day:
Live the Gospel as Jesus preached it and lived it,
Trusting not in ourselves nor in the material world
But in God,
Who was before the beginning and will be still after the end. Amen.