I have often had people ask me what words were most helpful to me as I was going through the most intense times in my grief. I hear that each person grieves differently, so what might be comforting for me, may not be for others. I’d also like to stress that no matter what was said, the fact that people were writing, calling or dropping by our house was incredibly helpful to me. Even if they didn’t know what to say or even if they said “the wrong thing”, I felt loved and supported by all. And I read each card, word by word. It took me months, but the messages each hit me in a significant way.
Suggestions on what not to say:
- “This is God’s plan.” – It may very well be, but His plan sucks right now. And I don’t understand it. And I’m not convinced maybe He didn’t accidentally take the wrong person – maybe an angel is being fired or something due to this HUGE mistake. So…save the discussions about God’s plan for a year or two down the road when the griever can see that life can and must go on.
- “Don’t question what God has shown you.” – That may work for some. For me, God had some explaining to do. And when I get to heaven (some of my closest friends might say if, not when), I fully expect a face to face with a step by step outline of His rationale. Folks going through grief deserve to question – give them that chance. Don’t make them feel less Christian by making them feel that asking is inappropriate or shows a lack of faith. As I’ve said before, I think God wants us to question. I’ve felt closest to Him when I’ve honestly put it to Him.
- “May God continue to bless you has He has over the past six months.” – Really? You consider discovering cancer, struggling through the battle with a horrible death a blessing? If that’s the case, how ’bout He blesses you a while and gives me a break. Yes, God has definitely been with me and my family over the past year. And yes, I still have a number of blessings. But in the thick of things, not feeling those. Remind me of all that I have a few months down the road when I’ve felt sorry for myself too long and need a good kick in the butt.
- She’s in a better place. – She may be, but I am not. I’ve explained “The Hawaii Theory” which supports the she’s better off notion. But our house and family were a pretty good place here on earth. The griever needs to say that first, and if they do feel free to jump right in a support that line of thought.
Here are a few excerpts from notes that really meant a lot to me. This one was written to my girls:
Dear DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle,
I was a friend of your mom’s in college. She was one of the first smiling faces I saw at our sorority. From that moment on, she made me feel welcome and included. As you know, that’s just how she was with everyone…making you feel comfortable. I have no doubt that each of you has the best parts of her to now carry on.
This sorority sister of Lisa’s, who I don’t even know, was brave enough to share a special memory of Lisa. And she captured one of Lisa’s greatest gifts and shared her remembrance with my girls. It meant a lot and I’ll make them read it again in ten years.
Here is another really neat way to approach grief:
It’s hard to know what to say as I’m sure your pain is very raw and anything I write is not going to heal you.
Admit you don’t know how to help. Don’t try to provide answers, there are none. Another acquaintance simply shared “I want you to know that we care.”
And this one was perhaps one of the most meaningful message of all. It was from a pastor’s wife – one who admitted that she too was hurting and did not understand:
Yesterday morning I came home from sharing coffee with friends, only to learn of Lisa’s death.
I have no words. I am truly sad. The questions that rise up, the sense of unfairness, the lack of understanding – all these remain, at least for me.
If a minister’s wife has questions, if she feels a sense of unfairness, maybe it’s ok for me to feel that way too.
Finally, I spoke briefly at the start of a road race last year in Lisa’s memory. The proceeds from the race were going to Duke for colon cancer research. I said to the crowd of 1,000 – “What happened to my wife is unacceptable. We must do something about this.”
A friend followed up and said she was proud of me and specifically cited several of the comments I shared that touched her. I think part of the reason I’ve been able to handle this emotional load is that there are so many people out there encouraging me and lifting me up in prayer. That is really important for my healing.
And above all, just do something to let the family feel your love.
And by the way, if you ever know of someone who is struggling with loss and you think I can help in any way, please let me know. I’m certainly no expert and am still in my journey, but I’m eager to help as others have helped me.