This week I thought I’d share something from my personal life. As most of you know, this year I lost my sister Roxanne to cancer. This is something I wrote a little while ago about what I’ve learned about how to care for people who are grieving.
Lessons Learned in Loss
I’ve been a pastor for almost nine years. I have walked people through the journey of loss and have, I admit, even taken a little pride in the effort I make to care for people who’ve lost a loved one. When people asked me how to care for a grieving person, I usually had a few ideas. Some of them were even good! This spring, however, I lost my sister, and, like all things in life, going through it taught me more in a few months than I learned in many years of watching. And so I would like to share, from my own experience, what I’ve learned. Here is what I would say to anyone who is wondering how to care for a grieving person in their life:
1. Say Something
I cannot stress this enough. I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking about death. Some people assume “I don’t want to say anything and upset her.” But here’s the tricky thing – and I’ve had this confirmed by others who have losses – when you don’t say anything the grieving person doesn’t think “Oh they don’t know what to say….” They think “Don’t they know what I’ve been through?” When someone is grieving, that death is around them like a cloud every minute. They think about it all the time. You don’t have to worry that they’ve forgotten and you bringing it up will upset them.
They are already thinking about it. What you are doing is saying “You are going through the biggest thing in your life and I acknowledge that.” It’s true that if you take the risk, you might say something stupid. It’s still better than saying nothing – I promise. When in doubt just say “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or “I don’t know what to say.” Send a facebook message. Write an email. Send a card. ACKNOWLEDGE.
2. The grieving person will not be able to care about you and your life in the same way
I love caring for people and helping people. I am usually happy to hear the details and frustrations of a person’s life. But when the newness of my sister’s death was all around me, I didn’t have it in me. I still loved the people in my life, but I couldn’t engage in the same way in conversations I usually could. Your boss gave you a hard time today? My sister died. You’ve been shopping for months and still can’t find the right dress for that wedding? My sister died. You’re exhausted because you’ve just had so much to do lately? My sister died. I know, maybe it sounds selfish. But give your friend some space, and try to understand. Try not to offload on them without acknowledging the weight they are already carrying.
They still love you – know that – but they are overwhelmed with grief. Overwhelmed. And so if they seem standoffish when you talk, or a little distant, or if they seem to shut down a bit in certain conversations, it’s not about you. It’s the grief. Your friend will come back. Wait for them.
3. The hardest times come months after the death
This is the biggest thing I hear from people who are grieving, and that I experienced myself. All the initial love and support in the early days is life-giving and needed desperately after a loss. However, for me, I look back on the first couple of months after my sister died and my grief was so raw and fresh that I wasn’t even able to begin to process it. I had no idea what it meant that my sister was gone. I wasn’t ready to talk. I didn’t even know how to.
And then, a few months later, when it really hits, everyone seems to think you’ve moved on. It seems like no one is asking anymore, or talking about it seems to make people feel awkward. You feel like people expect you to be over it.
A number of months after my sister died I was in a situation where someone asked for prayer requests from the group. When asked mine I said “Well the expected.“ The person looked at me blankly and asked “What would that be?” I was shocked! Had they forgotten my sister had only died a few months before? It was still the biggest thing in my life!! Yet, I recognize for those that are outside of the grief, it’s hard to realize how fresh the loss still is even months later.
To care for those who are grieving in your life, connect to them after time has passed. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Send them a message and say you are thinking of them. Acknowledge that they are still grieving. When they mention their loss, don’t change the subject. Say “It must still be so hard for you.” You will show them great love in doing this.
4. Listen to their story
I watched my sister die. I remember every detail about that night and the days before it. They were a pivotal turning point in my life. And I needed to tell the story. I needed to say “This is what happened the day my sister died. Please just let me say it out loud.” I was aching for my loved ones to ask me. Few people did. I understand why – most of us would assume that people would not want to talk about that – but in my experience a lot of people who have had this sort of loss need to process the experience. Saying it out loud is part of the journey.
A few months ago I talked to someone after a loss and said: “Tell me about the days around the death.” I just listened as he told me every detail – planning a funeral, choosing a casket, making hard decisions. This was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to him, and he needed to share his story. I soon found that most people I talked to who had lost someone responded with relief to that question: “Tell me what happened.” This was true for people who had lost someone even years before.
Let me say here that I’m not sure this one applies to everyone. I think in fact that for people who have had tragic, sudden loses (such as ones caused by an accident) it may not be true.There may be too much trauma in rehashing the day of the event. But be willing to take the risk. If a close friend has lost someone (I’m not saying to do this with your co-worker you barely know, for example), offer to get together with him or her in a safe place and say simply “Would you like to tell me about those days?” They have the option to say no (and honour it if they do), but if they say something like “You don’t want to hear that,” or “It’s such a long story…” say: “I would like to hear your story if you would like to tell it.” Some people will talk about the death, others about the funeral, others about the moments of learning of a diagnosis. They will know the story they need to tell.
5. It’s never too late
Have you read this and thought of ways you should have done things differently when someone you loved had a loss? It is not too late. Weeks, months, years later it is not too late to write or call and say “I realize that I should have said more. I want you to know I care for you.” Never. Too. Late. If you have regret, don’t. Instead, say something now and change the story.
I hesitated to share this because I have no desire to make anyone feel guilty or for people to think this is some passive-aggressive way of telling my friends what I wished they had done. I felt blessed by the support I received, and have prayed for, and received, the ability to give grace to those who, perhaps, just did not know how to be supportive in the ways I needed. (I recognize as well that I did not always know how to ask for what I needed – but that’s another whole set of lessons for another day!)
I share this because I learned some things, and my hope is that these reflections can give some insight to others. I hope that we can all get better at being there for people during a loss. I know that I have learned a lot, and I’m grateful that out of my loss I have learned a little of how to better be there for others in the future. I hope by God’s grace to keep learning more.
If you have been through the experience of grief, I’d be curious to know your thoughts. Would you agree with these lessons? Would you change anything? Add anything? What do you think people need to know?