There are many right ways of helping someone who's just lost someone very dear to them. Unfortunately, there are many WRONG ways of offering comfort, and in my experience, most people do it wrong, even when they think they're doing it right. I learned this following two very personal losses (the death of my 17-year-old son, and the suicide of his mother/my wife) eight years later when her unresolved grief became too much to bear).
Here are my experiences, and the lessons I learned from them.
Some years back, my son died instantly in a one-car crash while driving
to early band practice at his high school. We'd delayed letting him get his driver's license
for a year (until he was 17) because we felt he first needed to demonstrate
responsibility. He'd only been driving for 8 days when he crashed. The autopsy
showed no signs of alcohol or drugs - he merely lost control while
driving too fast, skidded out and hit a tree. His seat belt wasn't
enough to save him. Those are the facts.
I reached out to many people for comfort - connecting with my fairly extensive online network of "list-friends." In return, many
people reached out to me o offer me comfort. But instead of offering real help, most of them only made matters worse.
As they "offered comfort," I was shocked to learn how few really
knew how to do that, and how many tried to help me by using this occasion to ease their own grief, while claiming to try and help me with mine.
When someone is in
grief - when someone has suffered a great personal loss - the last thing he or she
wants is to be burdened by other people's losses.
To say, "I know how
you feel, because I've lost someone, too, and I'm here for you ..." that
shows compassion and deep understanding.
But to say, "I know how
you feel because I lost my second cousin in a car crash, she'd been
drinking and slammed into a bridge abutment on I-95, and lingered in
intensive care, like a vegetable, for six weeks until my uncle had to pull
the plug on her, it was the most horrific thing ever ... so yeah, I know
how you feel ..." not so much.
In fact, I'm here to tell you that this approach does NOTHING for the grieving person, except add to their pain and suffering. That all-too-common approach is
all about the "comforter" actually trying to reach out for comfort, to
process his or her own grief.
I was inundated with so many
stories of other peoples' losses - all of them pretending to try and help me (and most of them believing that they were helping me). But
what they were actually trying to do was to work out their own grief. I had just lost my son,
and I was in no shape to offer a shoulder to anyone else for their own
loss. Yet that was what they expected of me - that I would lend them a shoulder, and commiserate with their loss.
I'm sorry, but the
death of my son does NOT equate to their loss of their second cousin ...
to some extent, a loss is a loss, yes, but the closer the person, the deeper the loss. And the more recent the loss, the more jaggedly painful.
But this is what happened, over and over - and believe it or not, one person actually tried to show that he understood my loss because he'd just lost his dog. His dog!
you are reaching out to comfort someone who's just experienced a tragic loss, it's OK to say, "I
understand your grief, because I've suffered a loss, too." But leave it at that.
Don't work out the terms of your grief on that person.
Instead, after acknowledging having once experienced a non-specified loss, go on to say, "knowing
what a loss feels like, I am here for you - in any way and every way that I can help."
But then, instead of putting the responsibility for your help on the sufferer by saying, "how can I help?" - go ahead and offer several specific ways you can help. Ask, for instance, "do you need food? Do you need someone to be with you, so you're not alone? Do you need someone to drive you to the funeral
home?" Offer those, or some other material support, then say ... "or anything else you might
need, just know that I'm here for you."
Finally, don't forget the power of God, and the
comfort of the Holy Spirit. You could, of course, say, "I'll pray for you and the
person you lost." But don't just leave it there - take it a step further.
For instance, ask, "would you like me to pray with you
right now (in person or by phone)?" Then, assuming they say yes, make sure your prayer is all
about the person who's suffered the loss (not your own loss), and about
how God can and will help that person.
Going a step further, if the lost person is known to you to be a person of faith (i.e., someone you believe has accepted Christ), you can also talk about how that lost person is now with God. But if you don't know that for a fact, don't go there ... the person who's just suffered a loss may be agonizing about whether their loved one IS with God.
If you have a favorite comforting
scripture, a psalm or words of Jesus (or Paul, or anyone in the bible
who comforted someone), share that, too. If you don't remember the verses verbatim, take a moment to look that scripture up (write it down if you need to) before calling - or calling on -
someone to help with their grief.
please, if someone you know suffers a loss, make your comfort specific to
them. Offer meaningful help and support - but don't just offer generalities, offer meaningful specifics.
Not just, "I'll pray for you," but
"can I pray with you right now."
Not just "I understand, because I recently
lost my pet goldfish" but "I understand because I've suffered a loss,
too, so let me help you specifically, by doing a, b and c."