The loss of a loved one can be devastating. As a friend we often need to help someone cope with such a loss. Often we are unsure of how to help our friends and family as they cope with their grief. Should we offer assistance or should we give them space, time, and privacy?
Uncertain about what will be best for the grieving person, we sometimes choose to avoid those who have just suffered a loss. Though this choice may be the easiest, it is not the best. Those who are grieving need the support of their friends and family--they need our helping hand.
God offers us comfort in His scriptures for our benefit during the difficult time of bereavement. Even with the assurance of God's presence and His comfort, there will still be a time of suffering, for grief is a natural process. This process can take quite awhile before it actually subsides. We need to be sure to remember our grieving friends and relatives far beyond the few days and weeks after the funeral.
Grief can take on a number of steps. The last of those steps is closure. For some this closure may be years in coming, for some it may never come. Perhaps this is why James tells us that part of "true and undefiled religion is to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction" (James 1:27). Even those who seem to be handling their loss well are still under stress and need consideration. This is especially true after the initial shock of death begins to wear off.
Four months after my father's death, my mother mentioned that she often found herself wandering aimlessly around the house trying to focus. She had spent 61 years of her life using her energies for her husband and family. Now her husband was gone and her children were grown and gone from her household. My mother needed to be gently reminded that what she was going through was natural. She needed the reassurance that her children understood what she was going through and cared about her deeply.
As Christians there are a few things we can keep in mind when considering those who are grieving:
1. Remember that James' admonition about helping the widows and fatherless in their afflication shouldn't be limited to physical help. Anniversaries of the death, wedding anniversaries, birthdays, family reunions, and holy day seasons will be especially hard times for the bereaved. These are times of togetherness for most families. Now part of their family is missing. Some people want to be alone at these times; others need contact to help them through this rough period. It never hurts to ask what you can do to help.
2. Remember that everyone handles grief differently. Mrs. Jones may appear to be adjusting well after the death of her husband, showing no outward signs of sorrow. On the other hand, Mr. Smith's sorrow may be evident by the tears he sheds. Dealing with grief is a very personal matter. Even if Mrs. Jones seems to be doing well, inside she may be feeling very sad and lonely. People do not always wear their emotions on the outside. Mr. Smith may actually be coping more effectively with his grief because he is venting more of his emotions, or because he is physically manifesting his grief. It is important to remember the old parable about reserving judgement of a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. Mrs. Jones and Mr. Smith deserve the same love and respect, along with the understanding that their methods of coping with loss may not be the same.
3. Remember that all loss is devastating. The loss of a spouse in a long-term marriage is of course horrendous, but the loss of a parent can be equally devastating. This is true regardless of the age of the child involved. Certainly a young child or a teenager will not have the benefit of a father or mother's guidance and loving presence. On the other hand, an older child is losing someone they have known for much longer. There will be a great void in their lives as well. As Christians we should be sensitive to everyone's feelings no matter what their age or relationship is with the deceased loved one.
4. Remember to offer reassurance when it is needed. Many widows and widowers, especially the elderly, feel they have no purpose after the death of a mate. Show them that they are important to you as a parent, a friend, a brother, or a sister in Christ. Help them to see that you appreciate, value, and love them, and that they are needed in your life.
A colleague of mine recently lost her mother after a long illness. Her father had been the primary caretaker for several years. She invited her dad to her home for a while. Soon her father was busy reorganizing and cleaning her garage. He threw out a few things she probably would have kept, but she realized the greater good of her dad having a reason to get up each morning. He felt needed and purposeful and she received a benefit as well.
5. Remember that grief does not follow a specific time frame. Some people may be healing very well after a year. Some may never heal entirely. Continuing concern for those who have suffered loss is somewhat like follow up visits by the doctor. It is good to keep checking in on the patient to see what their needs might be.
Continuing to send notes and cards can be very encouraging. Something as simple as "Hi, I'm thinking about you!" can easily brighten a gloomy day. The act of sending notes and cards is becoming a lost art in our technological age of phone, fax, and e-mail, but it is a gesture that shows you took a little extra time to do something personal for them.
So when is the grieving process over? For some, who have suffered the devastating loss of a spouse, child, or parent, it may never be over in any formal sense. This lack of closure may be especially true in the elderly, who have spent most of their lives with their mates. Grief may be the reason why many older widows and widowers often follow their spouses closely in death.
The person we have lost will always be a part of us. If you have never suffered the loss of someone close to you it may be hard to empathize fully with someone who has; yet, as Christians we have a responsibility to show each other loving concern under all circumstances. Remember James' words about the fatherless and the widows and be an example by extending your helping hand.