Grief is a tricky thing. You’re doing ok and then it sneaks up on you. How do you minister to the grieving?
When I lost my sister in early 2003, my whole world fell apart. God had to drag me out of the deep pit I fell into. You can read that story here.
This time it’s my mother. She passed away rather suddenly at the end of November 2016, mere weeks after her 80th birthday party. I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I knew she’d had a rough year health-wise. Still, I thought she’d be around longer than that. There were so many things she didn’t get to see… like her oldest grandchild graduate from high school this May.
Still, as God taught me following my sister’s death, I don’t hold the Master Plan.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)
My job here in earth is not over. I also remember that God is faithful, no matter how deep we fall.
Also, like before, God is reminding me that our deepest hurts and pain may blossom in time into a vital way we can minister to others. To that end, I offer the following suggestions of how to minister to a child, adult, teenager, or family who is grieving.
Let’s start with addressing three common misconceptions. Then I’ll give seven tips for ministering to the grieving.
Do you really know exactly what it’s like?
Many times over the years I heard variations of “I know what you’re going through.” I understand the heart of this statement. People are trying to encourage you by reminding you that you are not alone in experiencing loss and grief. I understand that. I also understand the desire to help and the offers of someone willing to listen. Those are all good things. I just wish the wording was different.
I’ve read about the stages of grief, read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, and have Psalm 23 memorized. I’ve also heard the stories of many people who experienced loss. You know what? Somehow the rules change when it’s the loss of someone close to you.
Here’s the truth. You don’t know exactly what the person is going through. You are not them. You did not have the same relationship with the loved one who is gone. Not even family members understand exactly what the other is going through because we all experience grief in different ways.
Therefore, I suggest a different wording to voice support and encouragement. Instead of “I understand what you’re going through,” try something like this:
“Loss is hard, isn’t it? I’m so sorry. I lost …”
Then share your brief story and convey your offer to be a listening ear. The stories are comforting. The reminders that you’re not alone are comforting. Just acknowledge that each person’s experience of grief is different.
“How are you doing?”
As much as we wish we could just hit pause until our world stops reeling, life stubbornly presses on. People have struggles and victories. Name after name filters through the church prayer list. People get sick and some die. The house continues to get dirty. You have to get up and eat every day. Firm deadlines just cannot wait.
What do you do? The grieving person must take it one day at a time. Pretty quickly you learn to take it one moment at a time because some days are just too daunting taken as a whole.
This could look really strange to an outsider. “I saw so-and-so at church the other day and they we full of smiles and bubbling energy. They must be doing ok.” Well… not necessarily. It could have been a bright moment in a string of darker ones.
One encounter is not an accurate measure of how a person is doing.
This is especially true with the question “How are you doing?”
Take a Sunday and count how many times people ask you “How are you doing?” or “How are you?” Do they really want to know or is it just a way to say “hi”? How about your answers? When you say “fine” or “ok,” do you really mean it? Or is it just a polite answer while inside you’re thinking something more along the lines of: “I’m going to kill my child when I get my hands on them! How many times must I tell them not to run screaming down the hallway, especially at church?!?”
If you really want to know how a person, grieving or not, is doing, you often need to ask the question twice. The first time you get the pat answer. The second time, they must stop and think because now you’ve shown you really want to know.
I decided fourteen years ago to not lie in answer to the “How are you?” question. However, since I don’t care to spill my guts to everyone I meet, I have several pat answers that are short, to the point, and honest. Lately it’s been this: “It depends on when you ask me.” Isn’t that true of most of us?
Does it ever get easier?
A good friend of mine lost her grandmother a few weeks ago. During one phone call she confessed that the day after she got the news, this extremely bubbly and full-of-energy morning person woke up spent and not ready to get out of bed to face the day. It took a bit for it to sink in why she didn’t want to face the day. This dear friend then asked me, “Does it ever get easier?”
I stopped to think for a bit before answering.
“Days like this will still come,” I admitted, “but the space between them lengthens with time.” I still have a few days a year when I really miss my sister. That was fourteen years ago. Still, it’s not every moment of the day like it was at the beginning.
Part of opening yourself to love others is the possibility of resulting pain. They might do something that hurts you, betray you, leave you, or die. None of those things are pleasant (gross understatement), but it’s worse to cut yourself off from love completely. Then you never get the tremendous blessings love brings.
Many people try to block out love and the world at large. They numb the pain with drink, addictions, and other destructive behaviors. I did too for a time following my sister’s death. That kind of behavior leaves scars. I still see the affects of my cutting and hurtful behavior in some of my relationships all these years later. Still, numbing the pain doesn’t solve anything. Isolating yourself only makes you feel more alone which in turn creates the need for more numbing. It’s a vicious cycle.
That leads me to a few things to try when ministering to the grieving.
7 Tips for Ministering to the Grieving
Keep in mind that each person’s experience of grief is different. These things may work for some people and backfire with others. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to reach out to the grieving.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 (ESV)
- Sit silently with them in their grief. Don’t just jump in with quick fixes and advice.
- Keep checking in. Don’t expect them to come to you. Even if they don’t need anything, you showed you care.
- When you see them, tell them you’re glad they are there.
- When the setting is appropriate, ask how they’re really doing.
- Give them time and space to grieve, but keep an eye out for signs of suicidal thoughts.
- Understand that grief comes in waves. Sometimes the waves come close together, other times further apart. It’s just part of the healing process.
- Continue lifting the family up in prayer, even if you have no words.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27 (ESV)
What has ministered to you when you were grieving? Please share in the comments below.
God bless you as you reach out to show God’s love to the grieving.
“weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
Psalm 30:5 (NIV)