When tragedy strikes – whether it is bereavement, injury or some other kind of crisis, people often struggle with what is the most appropriate way to show support.
The kind of questions people ask are:
- “Should I go, phone or write (letter, sms or email)?”
- “What must I say? (I’m no theologian – I’ve never experienced anything like that – I don’t have the answers for the why’s and how’s)”
- “How can I show my support? There must be something I can DO?”
Over the years I have seen many helpful and unhelpful ways that people have shown their support to those in crisis. If I had to sum up all I have learned, it would probably be summed up in four words: Simple, Sincere, Serving, Sensitive.
- Keep it Simple. One of the ways to do this is to keep it short. Short visits, short conversations, short notes, quick sms messages. Folk are tired and drained – avoid complexity.
- Keep it Sincere. We aren’t God – we don’t have the answers. Don’t try and explain or give reasons. It’s not our job to explain, cure, heal or conclude the grieving/healing process. The most important thing we offer is our PRESENCE. Whether by visit or by message we are saying “I care and I am with you.”
- Have a Serving heart. It’s not about you feeling better or about you getting closure or getting the full story. It is not about offering your opinion, voicing your explanation or doing the thing you think will help. Don’t come to share your experience or relive your own past grief. You are there simply to support. A colleague tells of the loss of his son and that the best visit he had was one of his elders who arrived and with a quivering lip looked him in the eye and said “I am so so sorry,” gave him a hug and left.
- Be Sensitive. People grieve differently and there are phases of grief. Don’t have preconceived ideas, don’t have trite answers. Sometimes being silent but present means more than having many words.
Here are some practical guidelines:
- Phone calls are unbelievably hard. SMS messages, emails, cards, notes, are better. Think carefully about visiting as these can be (though not always) draining.
- If you visit, remember that the grieving process is a roller-coaster. There are good days and bad days. You may arrive to visit on a good day and the folk may be ready to chat and visit and on a bad day, they may be having a sleep or need to be alone – then just leave a note and go home. Don’t push. You are there to comfort them, not have them comfort you!
- You may arrive and the friends and family will be laughing at a funny memory of their loved one, or having a quiet tear or two. Adapt to the moment – however unexpected it may be. Come in quietly and gently, and just wait until it is convenient to be with the family.
- Many people don’t know what to say. There are not really words and it is much better just to give a warm hug and say very little than to trot out a trite saying or heavy speech. To say things like “Only the good die young” or “God only picks the most beautiful flowers for His garden” does not help! It’s not our job to provide answers.
- Don’t stay too long, just being there means a lot, but don’t be a burden.
- If it makes sense and would help, wash tea cups and boil the kettle, but do not take over.
- Don’t ask for the details. It is very tiring to keep on having to repeat them again and again.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has passed away and it means a lot to someone who has lost a loved one if you can say” “I will always remember x or y about your loved one.”
- Just be comfortable with the roller-coaster emotions that one feels. And don’t feel it is your job to “help” the person cry or stop crying.
- Find out whether there is a needy cause or fund that the families would like to make a donation to before spending money on flowers.
- It is ok to be sad too and even to shed a tear, but be sure that you are coming to comfort and not to be comforted.
- It does not help for you to talk about a bereavement that you or someone you know have been through. This is about their pain – not yours or someone else’s. It also does not help to say “I know how you feel.” Because you don’t! Every person is unique and every loss is unique.
Finally: PRAYER is one of the most significant gifts we can give people during the time of bereavement. The time you spend at home in quiet caring prayer is much more significant than you can ever think or imagine.