Grief is a wretched part of this path we tread here on earth. A dusty old seminary book took a rabbit trail from doctrine, and spoke the most profound, yet succinct, words I’ve ever read about grief. The author said that when God created everything, death wasn’t part of the design; so when someone dies, the reality is so awful and difficult for us to even comprehend, that our minds struggle to wrap around it because they weren’t made to comprehend it. When someone dies, it feels as though everything inside is screaming “This is so wrong!” because, in fact, it is. Death is all wrong. It’s a symptom of the fallen world. It’s a reminder of our utter brokenness. And it’s probably the most difficult thing all of us face, regardless of where we were born, how richly we live, our education, or any other culturally defining factor. It reaches us all.
In church, I’ve heard a great number of misnomers about how we, as Christians, ought to handle grief. I heard one woman say that she tried so hard not to let herself cry at her mother’s funeral because she thought it would show a lack of faith that her mom was in heaven. I heard one woman say to a grieving husband, “If you’d only had enough faith, your wife wouldn’t have died with this cancer.” To a recent widow, “God has more life for you, now you need to get on with it!” And to moms who lost babies (born and unborn/full term infant loss and still birth), things like, “Well, it was the Lord’s mercy to take him. You wouldn’t want to give your life caring for a handicapped child.” And to parents who, after years of infertility miscarried their little one, “It just wasn’t God’s timing. You’ll see.” These are just a drop in the bucket of statements that were said to grief-torn souls. If you’ve lost a loved one, I’m sure you’ve heard a few of your own unhelpful comments too. And perhaps you’ve even said a few to yourself as well.
Speaking into another’s grief is a serious thing. It’s natural to want to say something that can help, but in the end, more often than not, speaking in these circumstances only makes the speaker feel better, not the griever. I remember when a couple dealing with the wife’s cancer looked at my pastor husband and I rather helplessly saying, “Everyone comes to us with these crazy remedies they want us to try and we just need someone to listen to us and share this with us - not tell us we need to do one more thing!” That was a huge lesson for me. It made everyone around them feel better to bring a fix-it, but it didn’t fix anything for that couple bearing this burden. If we really, purely want to help people, it has to be them-focused.
When Job’s friends came to mourn the loss of his children (and property and health) with him, they started out really well. They sat in silence with him…for days. Most of us don’t have friends that would just take off work and drop everything to come sit, and grieve in silence with us. So these aren’t “bad” friends, they were just human friends. They even tried to turn Job’s heart to the things of the Lord; but they just didn’t have God’s perspective on Job’s grief, so their counsel wasn’t truth. It’s interesting to me that while the book of Job isn’t chronologically the first book of the Old Testament, scholars believe it could be the oldest book. Almost like the Lord knew His children would face unimaginable grief and they would need a manual for it, so here was the book of Job, first, before any other written instruction.
“It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has” (Job 42:7 NAS).
This verse ought to warn us that speaking into grief might be above us. So here are a few what not-to-say/do and what-to-say/do ideas for caring for those who have lost a child:
Don’t tell her how to grieve. When Jesus walked the earth, He showed up at a few funerals and we never see Him tell anyone how they should grieve, but we do see Him grieve with the bereaved. In Luke 7, we are told that when Jesus saw a widow grieving the loss of her son, He was moved with compassion. He did tell her “not to weep”, but it was more of an expression of comfort to her because a moment later He raised her son from the dead. If even Jesus came with His compassion more than His perspective, we need to do the same for our friends who are grieving.
Don’t give her any Bible cliches. Job’s friends were like little walking cliche encyclopedias. It’s not the time to tell her that God works all things together for good. She’s grieving, and grief fills our receptors so enormously that her ability to even perceive “good” might be clouded; in fact, Old Testament or New, God never speaks about death lightly. It’s a profound, serious thing to Him. In Jonah 4:11, God even expresses His concern for the animals that could die in the city. So we should erase from our minds the notion that we need to speak some kind of grief-erasing-fix-it into someone else’s grief. Skip the simple fix answers -- Grief doesn’t have one.
Don’t speak more than her. Don’t speak more than you have listened (James 1:19). This is a good piece of wisdom for most of life, but especially when walking alongside a grieving friend. When someone has lost a child, it could be intensely difficult to find the words to process that loss, so interrupting or jumping in with your words is a major processing derailment; or if she does have words, it could be that she is running over with words as she grasps at processing this grief and an outlet besides her husband could be a great blessing. My sister has loved me this way through a number of losses, especially our miscarriage, and it meant the world to me.
Don’t put expectations on her healing process. When my grandmother died, hospice sent us a grief packet. It explained the norms of grief, and one of them was that in a “normal” death situation (the person was ill and died expectedly, not a murder or suicide, not a child or unusual type of death), the average grief process takes 5 years to settle out. Not that you ever stop grieving the loss, but that it settles into a place of perspective and acceptance in yourself. Five years is an eternity when you are wracked with pain. But that simple statement of “give it five years” gave me more freedom toward myself and others to process grief as simply as it comes. In 2 Samuel 12, when David lost his little one, everyone thought that he would harm himself; instead, he got up from his fasting and worshipped. He and Bathsheba were intimate, and Scripture says that it comforted her. Not everyone would describe their grief after losing a child this way -- most people wouldn’t. But it was their process and it is a blessing that the Lord gives us glimpses into the vast spectrum of how we are allowed to handle this monumental task of processing grief.
Don’t judge her. Scripture tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). If there was ever an occasion to simply grab the burden of a sister and sling it on your back for a while, child loss would be it! Lift whatever burden you can, so she can process this loss. If the dishes are piled high, do them. If they are eating cereal for dinner, bring a hot meal - again and again; in fact, after some time has passed, have them over for dinner. Let her say whatever she needs to without the tiniest judgement. The intense losses I’ve grieved have stripped me down; it is a very raw place to be. It’s not a place of put-togetherness. So just let her be there.
Do have compassion and pray about how you can share that compassion with her.
Do let her share this experience with you as she feels comfortable. Pictures of a lost child and simply chatting over her memories of her lost child made one mom feel better, but not a grieving dad. Everyone is different, so let her lead.
Do look for a way to meet a physical, practical need while she is emotionally/spiritually processing. If the couple has other children, offer to babysit so they can get some time to process their grief together. Another blessing to the bereaved family that has little children would be having a house cleaner for a month.
Do remember the anniversary of her grief with prayer, and possibly a card.
Do pray often for her and let her know from time to time that you are.
“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me” (Matthew 26:38). At the most difficult point of Jesus’ earthly life, He asked His friends to sit and pray (or keep watch) with Him. This is our best, Biblical instruction for how we can help our grieving friends: be with them and cover them with our prayers.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
April Motl is a pastor’s wife who loves to laugh, loves her man, loves to talk on the phone entirely too long and most of all, loves her Lord. Collaborating with the efforts of her husband Eric, the two of them share a ministry dedicated to bringing God’s Word into the everyday lives of married couples, men and women. April has been privileged through her own church and ministry outside her local body to share God's Word with women ranging in ages and stages, across denominations, and walks of life. April is a graduate from Southern California Seminary and has written for Just Between Us Magazine, Dayspring's (In)courage, and The Secret Place and also writes regularly for crosswalk.com, iBelieve.com and Women's Ministry Tools. For more information, visit Motl Ministries at: www.MotlMinistries.com