“IF THERE’S anything I can do, just let me know.” This is what many of us say to the newly bereaved friend or relative. Oh, we sincerely mean it. We would do anything to help. But does the bereaved one call us and say: “I’ve thought of something you can do to help me”? Not usually. Clearly, we may need to take some initiative if we are truly to assist and comfort one who is grieving.
A Bible proverb says: “As apples of gold in silver carvings is a word spoken at the right time for it.” (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11) There is wisdom in knowing what to say and what not to say, what to do and what not to do. Here are a few Scriptural suggestions that some bereaved persons have found helpful.
What to Do . . .
Listen: Be “swift about hearing,” says James 1:19. One of the most helpful things you can do is to share the bereaved one’s pain by listening. Some bereaved persons may need to talk about their loved one who has died, about the accident or illness that caused the death, or about their feelings since the death. So ask: “Would you care to talk about it?” Let them decide. Recalling when his father died, one young man said: “It really helped me when others asked what happened and then really listened.” Listen patiently and sympathetically without necessarily feeling that you have to provide answers or solutions. Allow them to express whatever they want to share.
Provide reassurance: Assure them that they did all that was possible (or whatever else you know to be true and positive). Reassure them that what they are feeling—sadness, anger, guilt, or some other emotion—may not be at all uncommon. Tell them about others you know of who successfully recovered from a similar loss. Such “pleasant sayings” are “a healing to the bones,” says Proverbs 16:24.—1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14.
Be available: Make yourself available, not just for the first few days when many friends and relatives are present, but even months later when others have returned to their normal routine. In this way you prove yourself to be “a true companion,” the kind who stands by a friend in a time of “distress.” (Proverbs 17:17) “Our friends made sure that our evenings were taken up so that we didn’t have to spend too much time at home alone,” explains Teresea, whose child died in a car accident. “That helped us cope with the empty feeling we had.” For years afterward, anniversary dates, such as the wedding anniversary or the date of the death, can be a stressful time for the survivors. Why not mark such dates on your calendar so that when they come around, you can make yourself available, if necessary, for sympathetic support?
Take appropriate initiative: Are there errands that need to be run? Is someone needed to watch the children? Do visiting friends and relatives need a place to stay? Recently bereaved persons are often so stunned that they do not even know what they need to do, let alone tell others how they may help. So if you discern a genuine need, do not wait to be asked; take the initiative. (1 Corinthians 10:24; compare 1 John 3:17, 18.) One woman whose husband had died recalled: “Many said, ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know.’ But one friend did not ask. She went right into the bedroom, stripped the bed, and laundered the linens soiled from his death. Another took a bucket, water, and cleaning supplies and scrubbed the rug where my husband had vomited. A few weeks later, one of the congregation elders came over in his work clothes with his tools and said, ‘I know there must be something that needs fixing. What is it?’ How dear that man is to my heart for repairing the door that was hanging on a hinge and for fixing an electrical fixture!”—Compare James 1:27.
Be hospitable: “Do not forget hospitality,” the Bible reminds us. (Hebrews 13:2) Especially should we remember to be hospitable to those who are grieving. Instead of a “come anytime” invitation, set a date and time. If they refuse, do not give up too easily. Some gentle encouragement may be needed. Perhaps they declined your invitation because they are afraid of losing control of their emotions in front of others. Or they may feel guilty about enjoying a meal and fellowship at such a time. Remember the hospitable woman Lydia mentioned in the Bible. After being invited to her home, Luke says, “She just made us come.”—Acts 16:15.
Be patient and understanding: Do not be too surprised by what bereaved ones may say at first. Remember, they may be feeling angry and guilty. If emotional outbursts are directed at you, it will take insight and patience on your part not to respond with irritation. “Clothe yourselves with the tender affections of compassion, kindness, lowliness of mind, mildness, and long-suffering,” recommends the Bible.—Colossians 3:12, 13.
Write a letter: Often overlooked is the value of a letter of condolence or a sympathy card. Its advantage? Answers Cindy, who lost her mother to cancer: “One friend wrote me a nice letter. That really helped because I could read it over and over again.” Such a letter or card of encouragement may be composed “in few words,” but it should give of your heart. (Hebrews 13:22) It can say that you care and that you share a special memory about the deceased, or it can show how your life was touched by the person who died.
Pray with them: Do not underestimate the value of your prayers with and for bereaved ones. The Bible says: “A righteous man’s supplication . . . has much force.” (James 5:16) For example, hearing you pray in their behalf can help them allay such negative feelings as guilt.—Compare James 5:13-15.
What Not to Do . . .
Do not keep away because you do not know what to say or do: ‘I’m sure they need to be alone right now,’ we may tell ourselves. But perhaps the truth is that we are keeping away because we are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. However, being avoided by friends, relatives, or fellow believers may only make the bereaved one feel lonelier, adding to the pain. Remember, the kindest words and actions are often the simplest. (Ephesians 4:32) Your presence alone can be a source of encouragement. (Compare Acts 28:15.) Recalling the day her daughter died, Teresea says: “Within an hour, the lobby of the hospital was filled with our friends; all the elders and their wives were there. Some of the women were in hair curlers, some were in their work clothes. They just dropped everything and came. A lot of them told us that they didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter because they were just there.”
Do not pressure them to stop grieving: ‘There, there, now, don’t cry,’ we may want to say. But it may be better to let the tears flow. “I think it’s important to allow bereaved ones to show their emotion and really get it out,” says Katherine, reflecting on her husband’s death. Resist the tendency to tell others how they should feel. And do not assume that you have to hide your feelings in order to protect theirs. Instead, “weep with people who weep,” recommends the Bible.—Romans 12:15.
Do not be quick to advise them to discard clothing or other personal effects of the deceased before they are ready: We may feel that it would be better for them to discard memory-evoking objects because they somehow prolong the grief. But the saying “Out of sight, out of mind” may not apply here. The bereaved person may need to let go of the deceased slowly. Recall the Bible’s description of the patriarch Jacob’s reaction when he was led to believe that his young son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. After Joseph’s blood-stained long garment was presented to Jacob, he “carried on mourning over his son for many days. And all his sons and all his daughters kept rising up to comfort him, but he kept refusing to take comfort.”—Genesis 37:31-35.
Do not say, ‘You can have another baby’: “I resented people telling me I could have another child,” recalls a mother who lost a child in death. They may mean well, but to the grieving parent, words to the effect that the lost child can be replaced can ‘stab like a sword.’ (Proverbs 12:18) One child can never replace another. Why? Because each is unique.
Do not necessarily avoid mentioning the departed one: “A lot of people wouldn’t even mention my son Jimmy’s name or talk about him,” recalls one mother. “I must admit I felt a little hurt when others did that.” So do not necessarily change the subject when the deceased one’s name is mentioned. Ask the person whether he needs to talk about his loved one. (Compare Job 1:18, 19 and 10:1.) Some bereaved persons appreciate hearing friends tell of the special qualities that endeared the departed one to them.—Compare Acts 9:36-39.
Do not be too quick to say, ‘It was for the best’: Trying to find something positive about the death is not always ‘consoling to depressed souls’ who are grieving. (1 Thessalonians 5:14) Recalling when her mother died, one young woman said: “Others would say, ‘She’s not suffering’ or, ‘At least she’s in peace.’ But I didn’t want to hear that.” Such comments may imply to the survivors that they should not feel sad or that the loss was not significant. However, they may be feeling very sad because they dearly miss their loved one.
It may be better not to say, ‘I know how you feel’: Do you really? For example, can you possibly know what a parent feels when a child dies if you have not experienced such a loss yourself? And even if you have, realize that others may not feel precisely as you felt. (Compare Lamentations 1:12.) On the other hand, if it seems appropriate, there may be some benefit in telling how you recovered from the loss of your loved one. One woman whose daughter had been killed found it reassuring when the mother of another girl who had died told of her own return to normal living. She said: “The dead girl’s mother didn’t preface her story with ‘I know how you feel.’ She simply told me how things were for her and let me relate to them.”
Helping a bereaved person calls for compassion, discernment, and much love on your part. Do not wait for the bereaved one to come to you. Do not simply say, “If there’s anything I can do . . .” Find that “anything” yourself, and then take the appropriate initiative.
A few questions remain: What about the Bible’s hope of a resurrection? What can it mean for you and your loved one who has died? How can we be sure that it is a reliable hope?