how to talk to a grieving person

This is a huge topic, but I have felt compelled to address it.  I know what’s it’s like to stand before someone who is grieving and be completely tongue-tied.  What do you say?  How do you show that you care for them?  How do you sit beside them on their mourning bench, hold their hand, and love them… when actually you just have a few moments in front of them at the memorial service, when actually you are terrified that everything will come out of your mouth all wrong?

Recently my family and I have been face-to-face with literally hundreds of people who are standing there to tell us, “I’m sorry.”  We’ve seen the bewilderment and grief in their own eyes (so many of them have lost a niece, a grandchild, a teammate, their best friend) as they twist their fingers and form the words on their tongues.  Many of them fumble to a stop, confused and uncertain.   Because what do you say to someone who is grieving?

As we’ve already mentioned, my family and I have loved the book Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstoff.   One of his beautiful vignettes addresses this very topic.  My own comments (and the additions of my family) are interspersed with Wolterstoff’s wise words.

What do you say to someone who is suffering?  Some people are gifted with words of wisdom.  For such, one is profoundly grateful.  There were many such for us.  But not all are gifted in that way.  Some blurted out strange, inept things.  That’s OK too.  Your words don’t have to be wise.  The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken.  And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything at all to say.  But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Many cards, and many comforting words, included the phrase, “I can’t think of anything to say.”  And let me tell you… that is enough, because it is honest, and it is true (we can’t think of much to say either!), and it is still something to say.  Even those “strange, inept things” meant so much to our broken hearts.  They meant that you were there with us.  They meant that you had taken the time to come to the memorial service (some of you from overseas!).  They meant that you were standing in our door, holding a meal or a letter that Julia had written.  They meant that you had sat at your desk to write us a card and give us the gift of your time and your thoughts.  Your words meant that you loved us, no matter what you said.

If you have been through a grief like this, often you have something profound or at least very keenly helpful to share with us.  We deeply appreciated those people.  However, sometimes their earnestness and need to share was more overwhelming in those first two weeks than genuinely helpful.  Perhaps write those words down and send them to a grieving person so they can read them when they have the time and energy to process them, and keep your face-to-face comments brief and sweet and focused on the sovereignty and comfort of God.  A friend who recently lost a brother in a car accident did this beautifully and profoundly sensitively for me, and I know she is just an email away with much more wisdom whenever I am ready to ask for it.

One of the visits that touched us the most was from a friend of Julia’s from high school and UVA.  We hardly knew him.  He appeared to have been commissioned to come by his fraternity, for he brought letters from multiple brothers.  He came wearing a suit.  He stood there in the doorway of our home and gave us each a hug.  He was so, so brave.  We all hardly knew him, so none of us had really anything to say beyond “I’m so sorry” and then “Thank you.”  But when he left, we all turned to each other with smiles of disbelief on our faces, our hearts literally glowing because this strong, kind young man–just 19 years old!–had braved his fear and come all alone to let us know how much he cared.  What nobility.  Thank you, Stephen.

Or even, just embrace.  Not even the best of words can take away the pain.  What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day.  Of those things that are more, the greatest in love.  Express your love.  How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

We got so many hugs: short hugs, too short hugs, long hugs, too long hugs, sideways hugs, leaning over hugs, bear hugs.  Thank you, thank you, for your hugs.

Although I cannot remember anyone specifically, I do know that sometimes I was ready to end the hug before the hugger was.  That was probably because I was numb while they were actively grieving.  That’s okay, grief comes in waves, and everyone was missing Julia, not just me.  I didn’t mind the long hugs.  But maybe when embracing an immediate family member try to be keenly aware of how long they want to hug, and keep it only as long as they do.  Sometimes they will need to cling to you.  Feel for when they break away and do so then, if you can.  But it’s okay if you can’t, too.  They know what it’s like to need to be held.

But there are many ways to show your solidarity besides hugging or speaking.  Bring a meal.  Write a card.  Send flowers.  You may think that your gesture is getting lost in a million gestures, but don’t believe that for a moment.  Every vase of lilies on our doorstep, every box of cookies from a friend (thanks, Abi!), every visit where you stood there with sweaty hands, every card that you took the time to mail, every phone call you made and we didn’t pick up the phone, every email and message you sent, every little post on our Facebook walls that you thought was so insignificant… we remembered it.  We felt, with every ding in our inbox and dong of our doorbell, that we were loved, that we were sustained.  You didn’t have to speak any words.  Every single little thing you all did for us was an embrace.

But please: Don’t say it’s really not so bad.  Because it is.  Death is awful, demonic.  If you really think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me.  Over there, you are of no help.  What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.  I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.  To comfort me, you have to come close.  Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I am sorry that people said this to Nicholas Wolterstorff: people minimized his grief.  So far no one has attempted to minimize my grief.  No one has told me it isn’t so bad.  No one has tried to say that death is not as awful as it is.  Thank you.  You have sat beside us on our mourning bench–you are still there with us–and we are so grateful.  It’s not so lonely, it’s not so sad, when you have so many bookends holding you up.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are.  Such people need to be corrected–gently, eventually.  But no one thinks death is more awful than it is.  It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

My mother’s hollow, anguished words at Julia’s grave that Monday after we buried her: “Is there a difference between grieving and wallowing?”  I will never forget them.  She was two days past burying her baby girl and yet already was wanting to know if she was grieving well.

Grieving well.  My family and I are deeply concerned with grieving well, not for appearance’s sake but for our Father’s sake.  He chose to take Julia to heaven now and to leave us on earth without her, and we want to choose to accept this, to mourn over it appropriately, and to go on trusting and loving that same God–that God of hard Providence–our whole lives long.  Yet at what point is it okay to go back to work?  At what point is it okay to fly back to Italy to be with your husband?  At what point is it okay to tidy Julia’s room, to put away the clothes she left on the floor hours before she died, to vacuum her floor and take out her trash?  At what point is it right to go through all her things, to claim some of her clothes and shoes for your own, to give away the rest of her belongings to Goodwill, to turn her room into some other room besides Booie’s bedroom?  At what point do you set aside the books on grieving and pick up a novel?

Right now, we don’t know.  We don’t know, many times, whether we are wallowing or grieving.  We don’t know most of the time if we are grieving well, grieving honorably, grieving with faith.  We know that death is awful, demonic, and that we cannot make it more awful than it is.  But we also know we have life in the land of the living.  We are learning to walk a new line.  Pray for us.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves.  They fear they will break down.  So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings–never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends.  Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

If you remember nothing that I (and my family) say today, remember this.  Say something.  I said earlier in this post that every word, every card, every meal, every hug, every post on our Facebook walls, was a comfort to us.  You might think in this flood of comfort that we would never notice if you didn’t say something.  And you would be mistaken.  If you know us even a little bit, we wanted to hear from you.

Is this a selfish thing for me to say?  You need to comfort me!  Where are you?  Where is your email, your card, your phone call?  Maybe it sounds selfish or even inappropriate.

But we need to hear from you… because we need to know that you know.  Until you say something, I am confused.  Does she know my sister died?  What will I say when I write to her or see her again?  And then I might find out through a mutual friend’s casual comment that you do know, because you and that friend have talked about it.  But then why haven’t you said anything to me personally?  Is it because you read the information, got all the details you wanted to know, sat down to pray for us and grieve for us, and forgot to ever say anything to us yourself?

I understand this, because I am sure I’ve done it.  When an acquaintance’s mom died of cancer, or an old high school friend’s brother died in a car crash, I am sure I have asked all the questions and prayed all the prayers and just felt too removed from someone or too tongue-tied to say anything.  So I never did.  I never sent a letter, an email, a message.  Now, sadly, I cannot remember if I forgot to say something, and I am so sorry.  What if that friend, that acquaintance, was waiting to hear from me?  What if they never have, and our friendship faded away after that?

Speak early.  Speak softly.  But whatever you do, speak.  You will be missed if you don’t.  Don’t add any pain or any longing to all the pain and longing ripping our hearts apart.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine” or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”

This is down the road for all of us.  I know I will answer the question casually because I will not think you’re referring to Julia.  I will answer the question casually because I’m not even thinking about Julia right then.  I will answer the question casually because I just don’t want to go there; I want to keep it light and conversational.

But if you have the time, and if you love me, I will know it when you say, “No, I mean really.”  Please ask us this in many different ways and with many different gestures over many, many years.   Julia will always be gone but you will be here, and we will be here, and your gift of flowers will always look beautiful on our kitchen table.

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