How to be a Great Friend to a Grieving Heart
I typed and sent the text message to a sister who had just lost her mother. Days later, I received a message, then a phone call about the crumbling reality of another sister’s marriage that I immediately felt sick to my stomach - literally. Then a week later I found myself sending another text message to a colleague who had lost her husband. How do you love someone in a time when grief has stricken them and there are a myriad of other emotional states in the mix - fear, sadness, shock, anger, grief?
I have come a long way with this in friendships. Life teaches us and when we take time to learn the lessons, such experiences become the best teachers. I have not always gotten it right but I am better now than I used to be when it comes to being present with friends during their times of grief. So, as I reflected on my being present with each of them, I realized that for someone whose business is using anointed words to coach, teach, and heal, I am also gifted with the ability and skill to console a grieving heart. But how about the countless people out there who may find it difficult and do not know what to do when a friend hits them with the unfortunate news of loss?
Grieving is not a one and done affair. For as long as the human race exists and people relate with one another, there will be moments of grief due to the events associated with loss. Anytime you experience a loss, your heart grieves. Some may be subtle and would not require days, weeks, months, years to walk through. Notice I did not use the words ‘heal from grief’. Grief is a continuous journey of slowly laying down what you once held and exchanging that which no longer holds, for something new and different. The experience of grief brings with it change. Change in the person holding the grief as well as change in the people witnessing the grief.
When loss happens, our mind shifts into a space of fight, flight, freeze, fawn, feign... When loss happens, indeed our brain’s responses would be one of these but what if we had an alternative?
I want to offer another ‘F’ in this space and that is ‘focus’. I quite remember the day I received the news about the passing of my father. Leading up to this day, I had assuredly prepared my mind for the possibility so, when the loss actually happened, while my heart went into a state of grief, my mind remained focused and alert to the things I needed to do. In the space of focus, there were things I needed and things I did not need. One of the main things I needed to focus on was the immediacy of meeting my responsibilities and obligations of funeral planning and so on.
You may be wondering why this picture? Well, this is exactly what my sister and my colleague described when explaining how some may be offended by them not responding to messages and calls or all of a sudden they have become silent in their grief. I gently reminded them that they have experienced an unimaginable loss and that such trauma needs attending to for healing through it. So they asked “well how do I get people to understand?” My response “you don’t. It is not your responsibility to concern yourself with how others feel about you when you are in a state of grief”. I recommended that they assign a close friend or family member the task of replying to texts and responding to phone calls. Because I have been there and I know that where your focus is, should be on the self and the motions of slowly learning to live with such loss. You move with the grief, you dance with the grief, you laugh with the grief, you smile, you talk, you cry, you eat, you are present with the grief.
So then how do you respond to a grieving heart?
First of all, you must know what your friend is grieving about. The common one may be death but there are others too such as loss of a marriage, loss of a job, loss of an opportunity, loss of something that they deem valuable not what you deem valuable lest, you get into the space of quantifying and qualifying “which grief is the worst…” For my Christian friends, listen up, please do not immediately offer up paragraphs of bible verses and stories. Do not offer only sympathy texts. Find the empathy button and use it.
What your friend needs right now is the simplest and genuine presence of ‘You’.
So then how do you present a genuine presence ‘You’?
1. Aware: Know where your friend is with the loss they have shared with you. This will require that you think more and say less while taking in what they are sharing with you. If you have never experienced what they are sharing with you, well, you can try borrowing your felt experience from being aware of someone else’s. Maybe it's a family member, a story that captured your heart, or the one that’s in front of you now. Your awareness is important because it will bring to your focus, the attentiveness that you need to have and the empathy that you need to bring into the situation.
Also, be aware and be mindful of any cultural undertones or strong representation. Depending on the culture, your friend may be welcoming of anything and all kinds of support and some may not be. This is why your awareness of the situation and important variables at play is key to ensuring your presence is genuine and sincere.
2. Acknowledge: If you are moved in your heart to call, do and let it go to voicemail. Leave a message even if you are moved to tears or not, say something like this “Hi Jules, this is Kate. I know you can’t pick-up right now and that is absolutely understandable. I want you to know God is with you in Spirit and I am holding you up in prayer. I am not sure when you will be up for guests but do text me or call whenever you are ready.”
If you are moved in your heart to text, send the message. Nothing long or nothing short. A few sentences sharing your condolences and again respecting their privacy enough to ask when you can visit. If you cannot do or say anything immediately, let them know you are a listening ear. The beginning stages of loss involve a lot of shock and disbelief. Offering up words may get lost in the grieving heart’s mind. So you position yourself to listen, and listen some more.
3. Ask: Yes, ask before you show up the first time. Don’t assume that everyone will be open to people coming into their home. For the most part, grieving hearts may be present with you when you visit but their minds of focus are so far away, drifted into other realms of searching, hopelessness, comfort, peace, despair....
When you do visit, have no expectations other than to sit and listen. If you want to help with something ask.
If you want to pray with them, ask.
If you want to send food, ask.
If you want to check in with the kids, family members , ask.
You can do this! You can be that great friend during grief and not that weird friend who doesn't know what to do!
When checking in on a grieving heart's feelings, the worst questions to ask is “how can I help?”, “How are you?”, “Are you OK?” They do not know… yet. Rather, the appropriate question to ask is…none! Instinctively, know that they are hurting and in pain. Asking about their feelings is asking them to use words they aren’t even sure of yet. Let them lead the way in expressing how they feel and you take the position of… listening and empathizing with them.
How do you show empathy? Mourn with those who mourn. Simple. Allow your heart to feel the rawness of their present state. Be at their eye-level and let them know that you see them and that you are here, now.
In the last few weeks, my heart has been burdened with experiencing the emotional energies of people I care about. You may be walking a similar path in your relationships. The reality of writing and reading such a post is that, in the moment when you have to use some of these tips, you may literally forget them. That is why you practice the areas you are least knowledgeable in. So if it is listening, practice listening skills (i.e., talk less and open your heart to allowing others to talk). If it is not knowing how to respond or what to say, practice being still and allowing God to guide your tongue, mind and heart to know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.
If there is a particular skill you need help building or developing to help you be present with a grieving heart, feel free to connect with me via instagram @chiefjoyactivator
You can still be a great friend even during times of grief.
Yours in FREEdom,