The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grief as, “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement” or “a cause of such suffering”.
The term bereavement is described as, “being deprived of something or someone.”
The obvious form of grief that is universally acknowledged is the loss of a loved one. Yet, there are many ways in which grief presents itself.
Grief touches on the other-worldly. It forces us to face the certainty of mortality. It brings vulnerability to the surface and lays bare our worst fears. Even for those most deeply entrenched in theological explanations for mortality, grief can be the humbling metaphorical clothesline.
C.S. Lewis, a prominent writer and theologian, described his experience with grief after losing his wife:
When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
Even grieving with guidance is still just similar to having a roadmap during a drive through a hurricane. Grief comes for us all.
And yet, we still don’t know how to actually talk about it with each other.
Why Am I Writing About Grief?
I’ve personally experienced a lot of loss throughout my life. There was a time in my life when funerals felt familiar and routine.
In my grief journey, I struggled with what people would say to me or how they would show up – or not show up. One of the most profound losses I’ve experienced was the death of a close family member in a car accident. It was sudden. Unexpected. He was young. It was perhaps the first time I had experienced total brokenness and discovered exactly how deep despair can reach.
People I thought would be comforting made it much worse. I went directly to a pastor and his response was, “Was he a Christian?” The fact that he was not only worsened my pain.
Experiencing grief lends you entrance to the club no one wants to be a part of. But it can connect you to others who have had to face the same pain. It quickly became clear to me through my own experiences and the stories from others that people do not know how to support grievers.
And the best thing I can do now is equip others to reach out with gentler hands in the future.
The Approach – Did Not Understand the Assignment
I am willing to bet $500 Monopoly dollars that if you asked anyone who has experienced grief that they have been the recipient of one or more of the following statements:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “They are in a better place.
- “God works all things together for the good.”
- “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
These sentiments are “Grief 101 No-Nos”. Let me issue a humongous disclaimer: the people who say these kinds of sentiments are most likely saying them with the best of intentions. They want to help. They want to make things better, and yet, some words end up adding to the hurt.
In short, grief is a moment in which there is an opportunity to turn your prayers into action. This is an invitation to become the hands and feet of Christ and do something. Let your prayers be living, breathing, and moving. Pray if you must, but then do something.
The offer of help and how better to extend it
Many times, an offer of help is given to those who are grieving. It usually looks like this:
“If there is anything I can do, just call.”
“Please let us know if there is anything we can do to support you.”
Slightly better version but still not ideal might look like, “What do you need? What can I do to help?”
This is more direct and may indicate a more serious intention of actually helping, but what it does is put the onus on the griever to:
- Know what they need
- Have to articulate or ask for something that might be socially challenging
- In a way, this forces the griever to take care of the supporter but provides blueprints on exactly how to help
The reality of the situation is that the griever would like to not be in the situation they are currently in. And that is not something that a supporter can change. Instead of asking or making a general statement about being available for support, try something more specific and just act.
It’s okay if it’s not perfect. Grief is messy. For example, order food delivery to their house. Try to take the thinking and guess work out of the equation and do some problem solving so the griever has one less thing to do. Offer to pick up kids after school. Offer to drop groceries. Or better yet just order the groceries. Tell the griever you are available Tuesdays and Thursdays to help babysit or to walk their dog. Specifics, details. Depending on the situation and your relationship to the griever, try showing up at their house and cleaning, doing laundry, making coffee, sitting next to them or going for a walk.
Just show up and do something.
You will notice that the actionable items mentioned before do not involve many face-to-face examples. That is on purpose.
Often people who are grieving end up taking care of the emotional needs of others in a time when they need just the opposite.
Directly ask the griever if they’d like to have company and if they’d like to talk about their loss. Be okay hearing no. An example could look like, “Hey Chris, you up for company tonight? I’m free around 6pm. No worries if not, I can catch you another time.” Something like this is an easy way to offer in-person support but also allows the griever a way out.
It’s not easy to wrestle with mortality, death, grief, and the searing pain of loss. Grief is part of life. It is something we will all experience at some point.
But true community means remembering we are one body. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.
Learning how to engage with grief, to make sense of it and understand how to support loved ones in the midst of it is how we thrive together.
The Unimaginable – Starting Place
One of the most meaningful takes on grief I’ve found is in the lyrics of “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This is the song written to describe the process of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s grief at losing their son to gun violence.
The opening lyrics are:
There are moments that the words don't reach There is suffering too terrible to name You hold your child as tight as you can And push away the unimaginable The moments when you're in so deep It feels easier to just swim down The Hamilton’s move uptown, And try to live with the unimaginable.
I like this song because it offers a framework for engaging with those who are grieving. If you don’t know where to begin or feel lost as to how to interact with grief, start here. They are trying to live with the unimaginable. This is a starting point with a posture of humility.
You are supporting someone who is going through something you cannot imagine. Even if on paper you’ve had the exact same experience, assuming you don’t understand their personal experience is a good starting place. It places you in the role of listener and not as an expert on their suffering.