“If there is anything at all I can do, call me.”
We’ve all said it.
Someone has just experienced a loss and we don’t know what to say. It’s our sincere attempt to help. We really would spring into action if they called.
But they won’t call.
The problem is that those words fall so very short. They fall short of expressing the feelings of the person who said them, and far short of offering real comfort for the one who is grieving. Yet, it’s sort of “what you do” when you hear of someone’s loss.
It turns out that what we’ve always done is not working. There is a better way.
First, a little background about me is in order, a little confession if you will. I try and serve others, I’m empathetic and helpful and I work hard to be a supportive friend. Despite all of that, I have a massive hole in my game.
When a death occurs, I choke.
I find myself frozen in inaction when those around me need me most. I fear saying the wrong thing, so I say nothing. I fear doing the wrong thing, so I do as little as possible. On some level I expect if the loss happened to me, I’d just want to be left alone, so that is what I offer. On another level, I am paralyzed at the prospect of doing it wrong and increasing someone’s pain. I am self-aware that I completely and totally suck at this and I’m frankly disappointed in myself.
So recently when I had to opportunity to attend a Saturday morning workshop to learn the basics about how to support the grieving, I was all over it. I simply have to get better at this, and I was glad to have a place to start. The workshop offered the Cliff’s Notes version of a much larger discipline known as Stephen Ministry that equips people to serve others in grief. It must be an awesome discipline because even the Cliff’s Notes provided extensive info I had never heard– info so important that it must be shared.
My biggest takeaway from the day is that I am not alone; most people (in fact) “suck at this”. So contained below are three actionable steps. Something you can do so that the next time you find yourself in this situation, you won’t ask if there is anything you can do, you’ll know of at least three.
Tip #1 Be Present
Spend time with the person who is grieving. Sit with them, cry with them and engage them. Being present and supportive in and of itself is a gift, one that they desperately need. Don’t attempt to address any solutions; just sharing time is invaluable. Be with them, it doesn’t matter what you do, you very well may do nothing. Just keep in mind what you say.
Be sure to leave your cliché’s at the door.
- “he’s gone to a better place”
- “she’s gone home”
- “he led a long full life”
- “she had a good run”
- “…at least he’s not suffering anymore”
All of these come from good intentions, none of these are appropriate. The last thing someone in grief needs is to be “talked out of it”. They need to process their feelings and discounting those feelings won’t help. Just be available. Replace “call me if you need me” with “I’m going to be in the neighborhood… I’d like to stop by”.
Show up and shut up. You’ll get much better results.
Tip #2 Stick it Out
True friends play the long game, investing time over the course of months or years, not hours or days. Following a loss there is a natural outpouring of support for those in grief, but this often fades quickly. The casseroles fly fast and furious the first week or so, but soon a widow or widower is left alone in an empty house while still in the throes of mourning. This can degenerate into a bad scene.
Adjustment to the new normal will take a long time. Therefore you need to make sure you are there offering support long after the smoke has long cleared. Each birthday, Christmas or seasonal change offers another chance to reflect on what is missing. This is particularly true on the anniversary of the death. Help fill these voids by marking time with your friend.
Be around to go for a walk or simply talk through memories. And don’t be afraid to mention the dead by name. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is actually a valuable and important thing. Your friend doesn’t need to “get over it” by ignoring the deceased, they need to recalibrate. It is an important distinction.
Tip #3 Encourage Small Steps
Everyone grieves at their own pace, the timing of which is largely outside of your control. What is fully in your control is being supportive as they adjust to the new normal. The Stephen’s Ministers frame the whole process as a transformation in thinking. It is the transformation of a loved one from a “physical presence” to a “memorable presence”. Be encouraging in helping the mourner rebuild and make that transformation in thinking. You’ll know progress when you see it. Encourage that progress.
There you have it; three key behaviors that can make all of the difference. There is no magic bullet or miracle cure, but there is a process. Come alongside someone and become a part of their’s.
Next time when you think “If there is anything at all I can do, call me.”
Remember, to step up. He already called you.
Note: the discipline around Stephen’s Ministry is much more involved and intensive than I’ve covered here. I am not an expert, I am informed just enough to be dangerous. Nonetheless I wanted to share the 100,000 foot view that I myself only recently gleaned. If you have interest in being certified as a Stephen Minister, it takes around 50 hours of training, and classes are available at churches throughout the country.