One of the universal truths about our life journey here on earth is that it will come to an end. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a question of how and when. We are often so busy with our hectic schedules, obligations, and responsibilities, it can stop us in our tracks when we are reminded how fragile this gift of life can be. How frequently we lose loved ones is a part of life. In fact, a 2019 WebMD survey1 revealed that over 71% of Americans are impacted by a loss event that occurred within the past three years. That projects to over 200 million of us, and that survey was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. You can rest assured that if you know someone facing this challenge, you are not alone.
While those numbers are staggering, it means that someone you know and love has likely been impacted by a loss event. If so, you now have the opportunity to provide support in their time of need. As Christians, we have a unique and comforting perspective regarding the grace of Christ and eternal life following death. As John 3:16 promises; “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That is an amazing gift and truth that provides assurance for all those that know Him.
At the same time, when we lose a loved one the journey through grief can be difficult. In the case of a friend or loved being impacted by loss, the question is how do we best provide comfort and support when they need us the most? I’ve been through this myself, having lost my wife tragically in 2016. In the years that followed, leading grief support groups and interviewing hundreds of others who have been through loss, I’ve learned a great deal about this process from those of us who have been through it ourselves.
There are many ways we can provide love and support that may not seem intuitive, and some well-intended things to be aware of and avoid. If you find yourself in this role, here’s a list of 6 ways you can best support a friend when they lose a loved one:
1. Take the Time to Understand What They’re Experiencing
Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits, life experiences, and faith perspectives. This “personal blueprint” means that our loss experiences manifest in unique and very personal ways. While our intent is to love and help someone get through their grief, it’s a natural tendency to project our response onto those we are supporting. Be open to the possibility that what you think they’re feeling may not be what they’re actually experiencing.
In my book on this topic, early stage grieving is described as being emotionally “atomic” in nature. That means that after losing a loved one, many emotions, decisions, and tasks are swirling and colliding in a tightly packed time frame. Someone who is dealing with loss may have swings in their emotional responses that they can’t predict. Consistent with the time period closest to a loss event being defined as the “Survive” stage2, there are periods when many people are just trying to get from one day to the next. Conversely, there may be other days and times when they are experiencing more emotional “elbow room”, making your friend open and available. The best course of action is to listen and resist the urge to jump in with advice until you have the opportunity to understand where they are at that time on their journey.
2. Being “Merely” Present
When coming to the aid of a friend following a loss, many of us have the tendency and desire to help in a way that somehow “fixes” the situation. Resist that temptation and be content in knowing that just being there is a great source of comfort for your friend or loved one. When I lost my wife, I was blessed to have my brother come and stay with me for a week following her passing. One of my most poignant memories from that time period was simply sitting together and mourning. There were no words exchanged that would somehow fix the situation, and yet his “mere” presence was of great comfort to me. In the same way, you can provide that love and support to a friend when they’re in need.
3. Engage in Proactive Acts of Kindness
One of the most impactful steps you can take in support of a friend is to actually do something for them! I know it sounds obvious, but one of the big “don’t do this” recommendations I provide is to avoid saying “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” We’ve all likely used that phrase before with the best intentions, but it’s the opposite of actually helping. Effectively you are placing the burden on the grieving person to come up with something for you to do. Support is most generous and appreciated when you simply engage in an act of kindness on their behalf.
For example, I’ve heard stories of friends making a huge impact by mowing someone’s lawn, planting flowers, or cleaning up a yard without being asked. What a blessing to wake up while grieving to find a task done on your behalf! These gifts of support can be simple; doing the dishes, providing fresh flowers in a vase, even vacuuming or tidying up a playroom can be deeply appreciated (although be sure to not overstep boundaries.) Shopping for groceries or dropping off a meal in a cooler (so it won’t spoil), without needing to talk is a huge gift. The point is you don’t need to wait to be asked, when you look for ways to help someone you can and will find them.
4. Avoid Saying Things That Can Make it Worse
Oftentimes we find ourselves searching for things to say when trying to support a friend after loss. It’s a good idea to think through what you want to say before that moment is upon you. Well-intended questions can trigger painful emotions. I talked with a friend who was simply asked “How are you doing?” following the loss of his wife. His response was heartache as he told me later “How did he think I was doing? I’m heartbroken!” Other stories shared by those who have suffered loss include thoughtless comments such as “Don’t worry, you’ll get through this”, “It will all be behind you soon”, and even “I’ve been through it, believe me it’s going to be a tough road.” As my mother told me when I was a young man, “Don’t engage your mouth before your brain is in gear.” That was good advice for me then and remains sage counsel.
5. Be in the Present
The best questions to ask when initiating a conversation are about what they’re doing right now. Be gentle, but concrete and matter of fact. Let your friend know that you are there and able to do whatever they need in that moment. If they’re making a meal you can offer to help. If they’re going shopping, you can offer to go along and lend a helping hand. If they’re just hanging out, ask if they want company. If they want to be alone, don’t take that personally. When grieving there are many unknowns and emotional challenges your friend is likely thinking about over and over. They are likely getting many questions on these topics, and it can be painful to re-answer inquiries about what happened or what they think they’re going to do in the future in view of their loss. Of course, if they bring up the topic be forthright and kind in your response. If you don’t have an answer, it’s ok to say you don’t know. Being a friend is more about just being there with them when they need you the most.
6. Pray for Them
Find a quiet place to pray and talk with God. Ask Jesus to bring comfort to your friend and trust that He will bring peace and comfort you ask Him to provide. When we reach out to God on behalf of someone who has lost a loved one, the Bible tells us that He hears us. In Psalm 55:16-17, the Psalmist writes. “As for me, I call to God… and He hears my Voice”. In 1 John 5:14-15, he writes, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will… we will have what we asked of Him”. In times of suffering, turn to the God of grace and He will bring comfort to those who turn to Him while they mourn.
1. WebMD Survey footnote: “The Grief Experience: Survey Shows It’s Complicated.” By Debbie Koenig, July 11, 2019. Survey taken May 16 – May 19, 2019. https://www.webmd.com/special-reports/grief-stages/20190711/the-grief-experience-survey-shows-its-complicated
2. From the book “Survive-Alive-Thrive; Navigating the Journey from Loss to hope to Happiness”; Author Mark S. Negley, Forefront Books 2021
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Lorenzo Antonucc
Mark Negley’s passion for helping others through difficult life experiences has inspired him to serve as Founder and Executive Director of Survive-Alive-Thrive. His commitment to his Christian faith has empowered him to share the power of God’s love by facilitating a variety of ministries, speaking at public and private events, hosting a podcast, and writing his book, Survive-Alive-Thrive. Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Mr. Negley is President of management consulting firm PondHouse LLC, where he leverages 20 years of experience in senior leadership and management roles to guide his clients. Mark is a widower and the proud father of his grown son, Andersen. He was blessed to re-marry in 2020, and currently resides in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife, Melyn. His new book, Survive-Alive-Thrive, will release nationwide on May 25, 2021.