Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Help the Grieving When You Don't Know What to Say (The Christmas Names of Jesus: Prince of Peace)

by Danetta Kellar
@Danetta Kellar

I had intended this week to write about the Christmas name of Jesus: The Prince of Peace. Then tragedy struck in our church family, and hearts were thrown into agony, searching for the Prince of Peace in the midst of senseless loss. 

Here is my small offering, the words I have, to somehow comfort the hearts broken this holiday. May the Lord use you and me to bring the Prince of Peace to the hurting when they are too weak to grasp his hand. 


There it grew, defiant and ignorant of death. Living and green, vibrant. Pressing its tendrils up through the concrete, winding its way around the iron grating, clinging tenaciously to the wall. I hated it and resented its life. Death had robbed me of my joy, and I was devastated. Even the ivy made me angry. How dare it live? 

Kate came with her teenage daughter and quietly did what needed done. Mountains of abandoned laundry became neatly folded piles of order. I watched from my bed as her daughter organized my sock drawer. Warm food carefully arranged was delivered on a tray to my hiding place. Deep inside me, through the fog, I was grateful.

A letter arrived almost immediately from a quiet friend who had also known such grief at one time in her life. Its words spilled forth understanding, recognition, validation. I could hold that letter in my hands and respond silently even though my eyes could not hold another’s gaze and my mouth had stopped responding verbally to anyone.

There is an art, an exquisite discretion, to standing alongside those who are hurting. 

We may not always understand the pain they suffer. In fact, some events are so tragic, so unexpected, that we stand gaping in shock, unable to fathom what they must be going through. But we must not withdraw, we must not isolate them. 

That friend, that loved one, is still who he or she has always been. Only now life has been shattered with suffering, creating a completely new paradigm through which your friend must live. And you can help as he or she learns to do that.

Be present and available.

After his wife died, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be around me. I dread moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” A Grief Observed

Never underestimate the power of simply being present and available. The grieving person does not even have to engage with you, but your presence along with others can help him feel he is still alive even after life has been lost.

I shut myself in my room for days after my loss, but I still remember the sound of people in my house, talking, caring, serving. That noise was like a soft, reassuring, hopeful hum of life as I grieved a death I could not understand.

Know when to be silent.
Being a careful listener is much more important than being a wise advisor, especially initially. Allow those who are grieving to communicate as they are able, and as they want to. Guilt, confusion, anger, and despair will all be expressed at times and need to be heard, not condemned. Don’t draw conclusions about your friend’s character from the drastic things he may say during extreme grief.

Create a buffer for her.
If the one hurting is a close friend, seek how you can serve as a liaison between her and others who want to know what they can do to help. It is overwhelming, as well as extremely exhausting, for the sufferer to manage many conversations and field the outpouring of concern and help. This is a task for a close friend or family member, and can allow the one in pain to rest and process.

My friend Heather fielded all the many questions from caring friends after a loss in my life, allowing me to begin talking when I was ready, not before. When the time came that I needed to talk about my grief, those friends were graceful and loving listeners, having tracked with my process through her updates. Heather’s role as my buffer in the beginning enabled better conversations later.

Help by doing.
Like my friend Kate, who knew without my saying that there were tasks that needed doing, be a doer in practical ways. Is your friend usually organized and tidy? Keep her house organized and tidy for her. Wipe the children’s faces and comb their hair. Put the mail in a box for her to sort when she feels like it. Babysit and put dishes away.

For those you do not know well, drop off a few restaurant gift cards in the mailbox with a note of sympathy. Leave a bag of disposable plates, cups and napkins, along with other helpful kitchen items on the doorstep. 

Allow fluctuations in emotions and expression. 
Grief refuses to be organized and planned. It comes in spurts, sometimes angry, dripping with tears, shouting with rage. Other times it is a groaning without words. Don’t be surprised at these outpourings, but let it be known you are available and accepting.

Know your friend is not crazy. 

She is just pressed beyond measure, beyond anything she ever thought she could ever handle. That makes anyone feel crazy. Let her be real without judgement.

Remember grief is a process. 

Grief is in transit. It is not a destination. Educate yourself on the stages of grief and be a gentle sounding board for your friend as he moves through them. ( Know when to gently challenge irrational conclusions and give the grieving person opportunity to respond and discuss the issues.

Pray for her.

Comfort the hurting with prayer and scripture without using religious cliches to squelch or stifle their expressions of grief. Comments such as, “Have faith,” or, “God is in control!” leave the grieving person feeling guilty and invalidated rather than listened to and comforted.

Spring came again in my life, and the ivy continued to grow strong and green. But it was not without much rain, wind and time. 

I am forever thankful to the friends who were patient with me, who listened without judgement and helped me in so many practical ways as I learned to live again after loss.

This short blog post is only a small offering toward helping the hurting. There are many resources in our community and through media that can equip us to better grieve and comfort those who do. I have included a small list below.

You, dear reader, have a wealth of insight into this topic, perhaps as a sufferer, a comforter, or both. Pain is a common experience we all share at one time or another. Won’t you share your thoughts with us in the comments section today?

And for my church family, may we know the Prince of Peace this Christmas, for surely He sits upon the throne even on the darkest night.


There is an art, an exquisite discretion, to standing alongside those who are hurting. (Click to Tweet)

Never underestimate the power of simply being present and available. (Click to Tweet)

Resources: (Click on the links to learn more about each one.)

When Holidays Hurt by Bo Stern

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Experiencing Grief by H. Norman Wright

Reflections of a Grieving Spouse: The Unexpected Journey from Loss to Renewed Hope by  H. Norman Wright

Will I Ever Be Whole Again? Surviving the Death of Someone You Love by Sandra Aldrich

Don't Waste the Pain: Learning to Grow Through Suffering by Linda Lyons RichardsonDavid Lyons

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