Normally thoughtful, articulate people choke, when caught unprepared with a response to grief. Every now and then, our friends catch us off guard with terrible news; fortunately for us, most of us are out of practice with finding the right words, when somebody dies. Perhaps the clergy among us can comment about how they respond, offering warmth and strength to those who are suffering, while avoiding the glib reassurance of condolence cards. We want to respond well to friends who are struggling with loss, and there is no formula. Here, however, are a few possibilites that can be safely avoided.
“He is in a better place.” Great, after death we go to San Francisco? Who knew? Humor is compatible with grieving, so long as it does not diminish the moment. Ironically, piety often falls flat.
“God never gives us more than we can bear.” If this were true, there would be no broken hearts, or lost souls, or suicides. Besides, when God comes into the conversation in a moment of raw grief, it’s bound to raise uncomfortable questions that begin with “why”. This is probably not the moment for theological discussion, and definitely not the moment for theological jellybeans.
“Just be grateful to have had him/her for so many years.” Please don’t go there. This is not a time for a reproach. Besides, it is already confusing enough to feel sadness, anger, and disbelief. For some reason, gratitude doesn’t seem to neutralize those other emotions.
“I know what you are going through.” And you plan to tell me, right?
Awkward silence is an improvement over canned words of consolation, if grace doesn’t provide words that fit the moment. But comfortable silence is even better: the mere presence of a friend is meaningful, at a moment for which no words are adequate. When a person’s world has been turned upside down by the loss of a loved one, the presence of a friend is a reminder that some part of the intimate world that existed before the death, has survived. Just be there. Be willing to listen without comment, to whatever your grieving friend wants to remember. By simply listening, as if time didn’t matter, and being a witness to suffering didn’t terrify you, you give a grieving friend the chance to rest in the comfort of your friendship. Grief is exhausting. The sharing of simple, ordinary things that are not about death or theology or problems to be solved in the wake of the loss, are gifts too, and a welcome respite. Some days just call for a tacky movie and a pedicure. And don’t be hurt if the grief continues after the interruption, because it will. Allow your friend to be sad, sometimes. The process of grieving is made easier if it does not have to be concealed behind a brave face, for your benefit. Grieving takes time.
Everybody gets their turn, you know. We can get through this journey, with a little help from our friends.