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How To Help Someone Through the Process of Grief and Loss

helping someone through grief at Holy in the Daily

It was George Eliot who said, “She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”

Grief is natural, although it is never fun. It signals the loss of something that will probably never be recovered. Any kind of loss will invoke grief, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a move to a new community, or even the end of a ministry. However, it is usually within the context of death that we most expect to encounter grief.

Unfortunately, many of us have never had to face death as our forefathers did. One hundred years ago, death was a part of daily life. When a family member died, they were laid out in the parlor for viewing by family and friends. It was these family and friends who helped the mortician clean and dress the body. People knew what death looked liked and how to process it.

Today, the dead are removed at once to the mortuary where all the preparations are done for the family. The viewing is often formal as family and friends meet in a strange place to look at someone who, in death, appears unlike the loved one.

As a result, many of us do not know how to process death or walk with someone through the process of grieving. Yet, this is one of our highest callings—to weep with those who weep. The following are guidelines for helping someone deal with bereavement:

Allow the person to express their emotions. Do not pressure them to express their feelings if they are not comfortable with doing so. Expect intermittent outpouring of crying, anger, or withdrawal.

Come out of your own personal comfort zone and be available to listen, talk, baby-sit, or send meals and cards on a regular basis throughout the first year of grieving. Be sensitive to their need to be touched or hugged.

Be a ready listener both for adults and children. People need to talk about their feelings, the details of the death and funeral, memories of the deceased, and the reasons for dying. Gently challenge irrational conclusions. Avoid preaching or using clichés.

Pray for and with the bereaved, and comfort them with the promises of Scripture or words of a song or poem. The promises of God are what often sustain us, and others, through the hard times. Hebrews 6:17–20 tells us that they are the anchor of hope that holds our ship stable through the storms of life.

Do not say things like, “Well, he led a full life. It’s not as though he were dying young,” or, “I know just how you feel,” or “Time will heal.” Remember, every grief is a very personal agony. Refrain from such comments as, “She died because she was in rebellion toward God,” or “It was God’s will.”

Keep in mind the stages of the grieving process to aid in your understanding of what a person might be going through: (1) shock over the death, (2) denial of the death, (3) anger at God, the deceased, others, and self, (4) guilt, (5) bargaining with God, (6) withdrawal, (7) searching, and (8) acceptance of the death.

Knowing how to help someone through the process of grief comes through practice. What have you found to be beneficial, or detrimental, when you have lost a loved one or walked with a friend through grief?

(This post is adapted from Help, I’m Stuck With These People For the Rest of Eternity.)

In Him together, Susan Gaddis

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. mary

    This is SUCH a good post. I think most of us have the unfortunate aptitude to become either tongue-tied or unhelpful blatherers when facing a situation where emotions run thick. Thanks for the simple, HELPFUL steps. 🙂

  2. Heather

    Great advice. Thank you.

  3. Joan

    Thank you Susan. You hit it right on the nail for me. I found that much of the time people were a burden because of the thoughtful things they said that always made me know they didn’t understand. I loved cards….for a year or two would have been wonderful. Long silent hugs mean more than any words. Great article Susan.

  4. Donna

    When my mom died in 1989 I learned that my best friends weren’t always the best comforters. At first I was hurt – but then after time I realized that a good friend doesn’t always know what to do or say, and it had nothing to do with how much they cared about me. It would be nice if there was more openness about the subject of death so that people could be more confident with how to deal with it. I went through all those stages with my mom through to the acceptance stage.
    Losing my child is a whole different ballgame. The stages aren’t necessarily in order or logical. They can go back and forth. Getting a call late at night with the news was unimaginable and horrifying, and some days, still is . . .
    Susan, in your list of stages, I am in 6 and 7, and still stuck on 3.
    Thank you for this post to try and help people have some inkling of how to help.
    I agree with Joan – words almost never help. But the presence and love of a friend who will just sit with you is a huge help.
    Also – don’t ask what you can do – just do it – whether to bring a meal, or flowers, or to walk in and clean the kitchen.

  5. Susan Gaddis

    Thank you, Donna and Joan, for sharing what you experienced and what helped and didn’t help. I think most of us have a long way to go in understanding how to relate to grief. Your comments give a bigger picture to the subject than I ever could. Blessings and healing to you both.

    Mary and Heather, you are welcome. And…you are two of the most compassion people I know.

  6. Frannie

    Excellent advice Susan. Thank you so much. Now I know JUST how to deal with myself over the next year or two…
    I will keep all cliches to a minimum. I will only use one if it’s one that I’m allowed to use without offending myself due to lack of understanding my current mood at the time at which I chose to use such a cliche.
    I won’t hug myself without asking persmission first and I will expect intermittent outpourings of varying emotions! OK, now I can cope with my grief….
    Seriously though, this is good. I did experience something odd today though which you mention in your post.
    Today was my first day back at work after Mum’s death. It was a hard day because I actually just wanted to be left alone. Everyone that I saw came up to me to offer their condolences and the more people did this, the more upset I became. I held it all together until I got a hug, one of many hugs of the day, from one particular lady.
    Thee lady, who I know fairly well, came up to me and gave me a big hug. She is very nice, friendly and well meaning. I am normally a very huggy person, but for some reason her hug made me cringe, and she wouldn’t let go!
    As she hugged me, SHE was the one crying and shaking with emotion. I just wanted her to get off me. I was very surprised at my reaction but it still bothers me this evening and I don’t know why. None of the other hugs bothered me and now I feel guilty that I have reacted to her hug in such a weird way…oh well…time for a sherry! lol.

  7. Donna

    Fran – I’m sorry to hear about your mother. We only have one mom on this earth and to lose her is so hard, whether sooner or later.
    I totally know what you mean about that lady hugging you. When I went to my son’s service, a lady came up to me and did the same thing, like she was my best friend, and I hardly knew her. Then I spotted a real friend and managed to break away and got a genuine hug. Don’t feel guilty – I don’t think your reaction was weird at all.

  8. mary

    I agree with Donna, Fran–I don’t think your response was weird. It sounds like you were overwhelmed! Sometimes I think people (myself included) need to stop and check our emotional “expressions” and whether they’re intended to minister to another, or actually just a form of dumping on them. I think I would’ve felt that this lady crying and tightly hugging me was more absorbed in her own feelings (or even her perceptions about my feelings) than in consideration of me. On the other hand, I guess it’s kind of neat to see the depth of emotion your loss has triggered within her.

    And I’m so sorry about your mum. We’ve been praying for you.

  9. Susan Gaddis

    My dear friend, Fran. It must seem strange going back to work, because when you left for England, things were so different. Your response was totally normal. I remember feeling so ackward around people for so long after Mom and Dad died. That seemed so odd. Like one more thing I couldn’t handle. I’m glad you know you are loved even if it is hard. Pass the sherry and let’s cry together. We do it so well together, don’t we.

  10. Carrie

    This blog and the comments have all been very enlightening to me – I have tons of aching compassion and not a clue how to express it in a helpful way. When my stepdad died, my mom noticed that most people, out of their own awkwardness, would be impatient for her to get over it. She brought up the fact that 100 years ago, people in mourning dressed in black and others knew to treat them gently for as long as they continued to be in mourning. I think people asking how they can help is natural way to try to ease their own awkward, helpless feeling. Your advice, Donna, is good- just do something helpful so you’re not unintentionally asking the grieving person to “get with it” enough to make you a list. Thanks, everyone.

  11. Mc Chavez

    What Carrie said, to the tee….and my apologies to everyone if I was ever one of those overly “huggy” people.

  12. Donna

    That was good, Carrie. Melissa, I loved your hugs because they came from your heart – and I totally knew that you were praying for us. Mary described very well what some people do. That wasn’t you!

  13. Donna

    Seems like this could be a good subject for a forum . . .

  14. Cathy

    I think we would be better off if we still “laid out” our deceased. Our culture does not do death or any kind of grief well. Our approach seems to be just ignore it, wait a minute, and it will pass. Instead we need to embrace grief and suffering; letting it shape us. Of course there are those times we need actually counseling to get through those difficult times, but if we did not hide away these feelings we would know how to guide and support each other through them.
    Frannie – if I may, it almost sounds like the “hugging” person is dealing with some unresoled grief and when exposed to it in other people it comes flooding back.
    I think Donna is right. This is a great topic for conversation.

  15. Susan Gaddis

    I’d love to start a forum, I just have to figure out how to do so on a website/blog. Donna, your blog on grief (This Day) would be a great place to discuss this also.

  16. Donna

    Cathy, I love what you said, “we need to embrace grief and suffering; letting it shape us.”
    Susan, I don’t know how to do it online either . . .
    my grief blog is http://thedonjon.wordpress.com

  17. Mc Chavez

    Donna, thank you for the note of encouragement. I do remember hugging you for a long time in the foyer. So I’m glad it was a good thing, not a “get me out of here” thing. Truth is, during the service, I stood alll the way in the back of the church by the computer. Watching the slide show found me crying my eyes out. (I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for you, except for that I have my own unborn babies in heaven I’ve yet to meet. So while I’m much more in the “can’t wait to see them” an have a family reunion place of anticipation, I can somewhat relate to profound loss, as well.)

    During the slide show, I just kept looking at those pictures and hearing the music that went with them. I thought, dangit, how you’ll miss your son. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. The fact that he was a musician seemed to make it harder. I know how precious those gifts are in how they join people…and how one misses hearing them. And I felt a little cheated, too, because I had no idea how much Zac loved music. I missed my chance to hear him myself. I still have a photo of him on my hard drive…don’t know where I got it, maybe your Web site. I kept it because, although I hardly knew him, he is my brother and part of my larger family now. He will never be too far out of sight.

    Cathy, I like what you said about preparing our deceased. I’ve often thought that, as well. One of my favorite movies, “Places in the Heart” reminds me of that on one scene, also. I was thinking about what you said about “unresolved grief.” Certainly, our culture as a whole learn how to grieve better, which positions us to better inhabit “life” within us and then share it with others. But is grief ever really “resolved” until we get to Glory? I think of Revelation and how it describes how grief will someday be done away with in 21:3-5…

    “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

    My thoughts then move on to how the Word says,”His kingdom come, they will be done” in the “Our Father” prayer. So although we have provision for His kingdom to be made manifest on Earth – other than a kind of acceptance of what brings grief – I don’t know that we completely eliminate, settle out, or conclude our grieving until we realize the *fullness* of his kingdom, which can never be perfectly made manifest on Earth. If it were, I wouldn’t much look forward to attaining residency in my heavenly home. And, dude, as much as I love y’all, heavenly places still look way better to me. The moment I feel resolved in anything…loss, grief, whatever….is the moment I’ve stopped pining for Heaven. Heck, maybe even a little unresolved grief is what helps us mourn with one another!

    If my mind isn’t right about this, then someone please straighten me out with the Word. Thanks!

    ~ m

  18. Dalette

    Loss and grieving is for sure work,which I call grief work actuall work that must be done to be able to go through to the otherside.

  19. Donna

    I’m so glad I was led back to re-read everything that was written here. Too bad there isn’t a way to have it somewhere with easy access for those who might find it helpful someday.
    It was a comfort to me to read it once again. And it reminds me that I have some very special people in my life.

  20. moira

    …..well, I have learned so much about grief over the past few years, losing my mum, dad and then Jim, that I have come to the conclusion that it never really ends….
    When folks say, Oh, you’ll have to give it at least two years…..and I kind of used that as a bench mark, until I realised that it wasn’t working for me. I thought I was odd, but now I’m learning to manage it…….instead of looking for a ‘time’ when it’s going to ‘stop’ and you’re going to ‘get back to normal’
    This IS normal, and I can live with that!!!!!!!
    I have a wonderful life, and I’m a happy camper….BUT I still have the grief process going on parallel to living and blessing others…
    I reckon, that’s the way both God and Jim would want it, and I want to honour them with my life and living and giving….even thru the pain of loss….
    Of course, it’s easy to say and extremely difficult to do, but it’s very comforting when I think of my mum and dad and Jim looking down, thinking, ‘See!! She’s getting the hang of it!!!’
    And IF I’m able to be a blessing to others, and help someone else thru it………..then both God and Jim have taught me well…..and so I’m staying in the classroom!!!!

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