Helping Those Who Grieve

When someone we love dies suddenly, the pain is real, deep, and everything we believe can be called into question. In 2016, I received the terminal cancer diagnosis of my husband and the father of our three teenagers. This surprising and painful diagnosis caused deep agony in our souls as we fought to make sense of it. But time wasn’t on our side to even grapple with seeking answers. My husband died three weeks later after receiving the devastating news.

This post is written to help those who are led to enter into someone else’s hard place—a place where many of us want to help but are unsure how best to serve. Even though the call to walk with someone who is going through great suffering is easier said than done, answering that call is always compelled by the love of Christ and will move us into a deeper worship experience with the Lord.

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

God comforted me and my children through the practical and emotional help and love of others who answered God’s calling to walk with us. As they reached out and we responded, deeper relationships were grown out of our pain.

Wanting to Help, But Feeling Scared

How many of us really feel equipped or qualified to enter the dark valley of grief with someone who is hurting? Maybe we fear not knowing what to say or we are fearful we might say something that will offend or hurt the person even more. Maybe death hits too close to home personally and it hurts being close to someone else experiencing the death of a loved one? Or possibly you want to help but feel you don’t want to intrude into someone’s life? Could it be your desire to reach out, but you just don’t know what to do?

It’s true walking with someone who is going through intense grief is not easy and can actually be uncomfortable for some. But God’s intended ideal environment for care is the community of believers. We see this confirmed in Scripture through numerous “one another” passages. These passages make it clear that we are called to enter into both the joy and the sorrow of another’s life (Galatians 6:2).

The Basics of Helping

What I want to communicate here are six things to know as you serve someone during a very difficult time. Every situation is different, so it is critical to rely on the Holy Spirit. If God burdens you to help a sufferer, be prepared to be challenged to personally sacrifice. The Gospel lived out includes doing, loving, giving, serving, and helping. When a person is hurting and we do nothing (we can at least pray), we fall miserably short of our calling to “one another.” God calls us to show up, to step out, to “do.”

In my grief, God has sent those who have just shown up. Consistently and selflessly. They “just do” instead of ask. Individuals who are not letting fear or lack of time invested in our relationship stop them from being used for God’s glory. Maybe they know that suffering people don’t expect perfection from anyone or that doing or saying the right thing is just pressure we put on ourselves. What matters is showing up.

Compassion and graciousness have many forms and can manifest as help in small and big ways. Notes, prayers, texts, calls, emails, and gifts all display persevering love (1 Corinthians 13:7). Random acts of kindness and generosity that recognize a sufferer’s need and seek to meet it (1 Corinthians 13:4) display what biblical love (action) is.

Be Prepared for the Cost

There is a cost to doing the work of being a friend to someone who is suffering. Nourishing healthy friendships is hard enough but walking with someone who is suffering means sacrificing; sacrificing expectations, time, comfort, schedules. This is not the time to be sensitive to any small offense. A grieving person is just trying to hold it together every hour of the day and their ability to function normally is greatly impeded. As Paul Tripp writes, a grieving person may seem normal on the outside but inside they are thinking and processing through a thick fog (jello), especially in the first six months after a death.

Offer Grace

There are highs and lows in suffering and the depths of the lows can be unfathomable. At times, a sufferer may not have the strength to respond to all the messages directed to them or they may inadvertently misspeak, misunderstand, forget, respond wrongly, or not respond at all.

But the truth is we all have had moments when we have misunderstood intentions, perceived another’s actions wrongly, spoken unhelpful words, or given poor advice when someone was suffering. Just like Job’s friends in the Bible, misunderstandings and poor counsel, even when intentions are pure, do and will happen. For this reason, both the sufferer and the one walking with them need to give understanding and abundant grace.

Offer a Specific Help Instead of a Broad One

Many loving and caring people are genuinely sincere when they offer their help by saying, “Please call me if you need anything.” But almost always, the sufferer does not have the capacity to process such a vague offer. Although the comment is genuine, it is too broad for a sufferer because the heavy burden of grief keeps them from being able to make decisions as they normally would. Specifics make all the difference. It is best to seek to serve in specific ways in the areas you are gifted in.

Be Patient and Persevere

Be there for the long haul. Most people will forget about the grieving person after a month or two. It is around the second or third month after a loved one dies when many who are struggling seek help. Right or wrong, a sense of abandonment can set in around this time, which coincides with the time the caring community rightly and necessarily moves back into their own lives and the responsibilities of their own families.

Although this needs to happen, caring can continue and be manifested in a variety of new and different ways for a long time period. Consistent caring shows the person that although time is passing and the care they are receiving is evolving, they are not forgotten, they are loved, and they are important and cared for.

In summary, it is the beauty of community that makes all the difference during suffering. We all learn in pain. It is the beauty of community incarnating the love of Jesus Christ that creates contexts of grace which accomplishes His goal in the life of a sufferer.

This blog was originally posted at First Evangelical Free Church of Maplewood, MN, view the original post here.

Karen McMahon
Karen McMahon is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota, is a founding Board Member of the Biblical Counseling Alliance, and is a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).
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