When my wife and I suddenly lost our beautiful 30-year-old daughter on an early summer day four years ago, we found ourselves like people standing at the edge of a cliff where Eva had suddenly dropped out of sight. She was gone. Just gone. She had been ill, but we didn’t expect anything like this.
In a single moment, our conversations and smiles and hugs came to an abrupt end. Our lives changed. The task of life changed to survival in the face of a harsh and unexpected new reality. Would we survive? Would we want to?
We did survive, held up by the loving hearts of friends and relatives who gave us the gift of suffering with us. That’s literally what the word sympathy means: to suffer with.
Some friends, maybe most, were at a loss to know what to say. Some said: “I have no words.” And I would say back: “that is about the very best thing you could have said.” The reason I felt that way is because they were signaling that they could not grasp what we were going through. By sensing the enormity of the sudden loss of one’s daughter, and knowing that they could not really comprehend it, they were showing us that they sensed the depth of our trauma. By saying they could not comprehend, they were comprehending in part.
But we all still wonder what to say to a friend or relative who has experienced sudden traumatic loss. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Or we are concerned that if we say something and it releases a gusher of grief and sadness, we won’t know what to do.
We make things too complicated.
In the moment of our friend’s greatest grief, our job is not really to cheer them up. There is nothing that we can say that fixes the problem. No words will bring back to life that loved one who is suddenly gone. If anything, our friends who have lost someone will benefit by knowing that they are not alone. No one can bring that loved one back. But we can say things that let our grieving friends know that we see them, we hurt with them, and we will not forget them. That is why we should not skirt around them. Pretend like nothing is wrong. Or decide it is time for them to “move on.” There are no rules about grief. It is a house you live in for some amount of time, and it differs from person to person.
There is one gift we can give to our friends who are grieving that we hardly ever do. Something that seems like taking a great risk. We can say to our grieving friend: “Tell me about…”
Tell me about your daughter. Tell me about your husband. Tell me about your mother. Tell me about your friend.
When we give a grieving friend an opportunity to say something about that loved one they lost, when we put the spotlight on the beloved, we powerfully honor that person whose absence is so deeply felt. In that moment we take the focus off the bereaved and put it on the reason for the bereavement. It is a huge mistake when we think grief is a problem to be solved. It is not. Grief is a journey to be taken.
We don’t think to ask our grieving friends to tell us about the person they lost. I have asked many who have plodded through the valley of grief how many people asked them about the person they lost. Most of the time I hear: No one. No one has ever asked me to tell them about my loved one.
Be warned: if you do say to your friend who is grieving deeply, tell me about your loved one, they may be taken off guard. They may get choked up. They may not be able to say anything right away. But that’s all right. If they cry, that’s all right. If in that moment they take a pass, that’s all right.
What you have done by asking them about the person they lost is to connect with their loss — not in some generic way, but concretely. You have told them that you know what is really important to them, which is not their experience of mourning, but the reason for their mourning.
If your grieving friend chooses to speak of their loved one — who they were, what they did, memories deeply embedded — it will be healing.
And your grieving friend knows that someone really does understand what matters here.
You will have given them a great gift. One rarely given.
And when someone says to me: I would have really liked to have known Eva, I completely choke up. But for a wonderful reason.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought leaders through the Brook Network. His books include Spiritual Leadership Today and Life After Grief. His latest book, A Chronicle of Grief, recently won the Foreword Reviews Gold Award for Grieving/Grief.