By Nancy Guthrie
It’s inevitable—you will have someone in your congregation, workplace, or neighborhood lose someone they love. Often, we have good intentions, but don’t know exactly what to do or say.
Over the years since I experienced the death of my daughter, Hope, and my son, Gabriel, I’ve interacted with grieving people, especially through the Respite Retreats my husband and I host for couples who have lost children—and have identified a number of key ways to minister to grieving people:
1. Don’t try to “fix” their grief, but do say something.
To a person who has lost someone they love, it is as if a hurdle has been erected between them and everyone else until the loss is acknowledged in some way.
Oftentimes, we don’t say something because we’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. Other times we’re quiet because we want to say something meaningful, insightful, or helpful, and we can’t come up with anything.
But grieving people don’t expect you to say something that will make everything okay, or that you’re going to come up with some spiritual or emotional insight they haven’t thought of to this point.
They just want you to say something simple like, “I’m so sad with you.” They want you to say something.
2. Don’t tell a story about your own or someone else’s loss.
My theory is that in our effort to fill up the awkward silence, or in our desire to demonstrate that we really do “get” what they are going through, our brains go on a search for a match to the current situation. That’s natural.
But when a search result comes up, we don’t have to say it out loud. Instead, keep the focus on the person who is grieving. We might think the story of our experience or someone else’s will be helpful, but it won’t be.
Their own loss is all they have space for in their thoughts, conversation, and hearts, so keep the focus on them.
3. Be a welcome companion in grief—regardless of how well you know them.
Sometimes we stay away from people going through grief because we think they must have closer friends who are coming alongside them during this hard time and that we would be an unwelcome intrusion.
I have hardly ever met a grieving person who didn’t have at least one story of someone they thought would be there for them who disappeared. But when I ask these same people, “Were there some people who showed up in your grief in incredible ways that weren’t your close friends before your loss?” And they almost always say, “Yes!”
These people may be in their lives for a short time or may be there to stay, but they will never be forgotten.
4. Give them permission to cry.
Sometimes we are afraid to bring up a person’s loss because we don’t want to “make them sad” if it seems like they are having a good day.
But they are already sad. Their grief is like a computer program always running in the background. When you ask about their grief or share how you have been thinking about the person who died, and they begin to weep, it’s not that you made them sad. You simply gave them an opportunity to release some of the sadness that was already there in the form of tears.
You cared enough to bring up the one topic they really want to talk about, but don’t always know how to bring up or simply don’t bring up because they fear it will make others uncomfortable.
5. Proactively meet practical needs.
Sometimes well-meaning people say to a person who has lost someone, “I’m here. Please call me if you need anything.”
But grieving people will not usually call you if they need something. They certainly can’t take on the task of recruiting and organizing the help they need. What they really need is for people around them to figure out something that would be helpful and just do it.
“I’m going to mow your grass for the rest of the summer so you don’t have to think about it,” or “Would you like some company to go pick out the burial plot or to order the gravestone?” or “I’m going to come over on Thursday morning and do your laundry.”
No one is ever going to call and ask someone to clean their toilets, wash their clothes, get groceries, or run other errands. But sometimes that is what they really need.
6. Use their loved one’s name in conversation.
The greatest fear grieving people have is that the person they love will be forgotten. The person is gone from their presence, and they’re afraid that person will be erased from everyone’s thoughts.
To hear someone simply speak that person’s name is like a balm to the soul of a grieving person.
7. If you knew the person who died, tell their grieving loved one a story about him/her.
It’s easy to make general statements about a deceased person to a loved one, like, “He was a really great guy.”
But what grieving people long to hear are specific stories about experiences others had with that person—stories that highlight specific qualities about the person and instances in which those qualities were evident.
Stories like this bring joy in the midst of sorrow to a grieving person. To take it a step further, consider writing out one (or more) of these stories to give to the grieving person. This will bring comfort again and again as they read it and share it with others over the days and years to come.
8. If at all possible, simply show up at the visitation, the funeral, and beyond.
If you can’t make it to the visitation or the funeral, don’t tell the person why you couldn’t come (unless you were on the other side of the world or in a coma).
Whatever reason kept you from being there on the lowest days of their life—when they wanted the world to stop and notice the person they loved died—simply won’t be good enough.
Just say that you are disappointed you couldn’t be there. Ask the person to tell you about aspects of the service that were special to them. Maybe even ask if you can come over and watch a video of the service with them.
9. Invite them to talk about their grief and their loved one who died.
It is extremely hard for a grieving person to have to give a report on how they’re doing. We tend to approach people who have been through a loss with the question, “How are you?”
It is simple enough and it certainly demonstrates caring. But for many grieving people, “Not so good,” might sound pathetic. And, “Good,” just isn’t the truth.
Many grieving people will feel judged on their emotional or spiritual health by their honest response. The ups and downs and waves of grief can overtake even the most emotionally and spiritually sound people.
The best question to ask is, “What’s your grief like these days?” By asking this question, you’re acknowledging their sorrow, affirming the normalcy of such sadness, and allowing them to talk about it.
10. Reach out to the grieving member of your congregation on the anniversary of their loved one’s death.
There is a day that comes around on the calendar every year for the person who has lost someone they love.
Every year, as that day draws near, there is a sense of dread. The grieving person is trying to figure out what to do with the day to honor the memory of the person who died. Sometimes, there’s no energy for that and they’re just trying to get through the day.
Regardless of how much time has passed since their loved one died, it means the world to a grieving person for someone to care enough to send a note, give them a call, invite them to share a meal, or offer to accompany them to the grave.
Nancy is a speaker, writer, and Bible teacher. Her own experience with grief—having lost two children to a rare genetic disease—has translated into ministry to others who suffer loss.
Adapted from What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps and What Really Hurts (Crossway, 2016).