How to really help someone who is grieving

Saturday July 28, 2018 Written by Published in Virtues in Paradise
A simple willingness to listen to someone’s pain can be deeply healing. 18072708 A simple willingness to listen to someone’s pain can be deeply healing. 18072708

What do we say to a loved one who is dying? How do we respond to a grieving person?


After my younger brother’s passing, I was surprised by how long it took for me to emerge from a tsunami of grief. For a while I felt like I was drowning.

Now, close friends are experiencing grief, bringing to mind what was helpful and not helpful when I was going through it.

One friend is shattered after someone she trusted destroyed her prized possessions.

Another is experiencing anticipatory grief as both her beloved grandparents are critically ill.

I’m mindful of how helpful it is to simply listen, trusting that “this too shall pass” (Persian proverb), and that the grieving person will get through it.

What a rare gift to allow someone to empty their cup of emotions, without having to rescue, give advice, or rush them through it.

I wrote Graceful Endings: Navigating the Journey of Loss and Grief, finishing it on Aitutaki while on holiday several years ago. It’s about how to give a dying person a graceful end-of-life experience.

It also talks about what is helpful and not helpful to a grieving person while riding waves of sorrow.

A chapter entitled ‘Help Strikes Again’ outlines the sins of the well-meaning. They include:

1. Taking over. Trying to control the situation without even asking a person with a terminal diagnosis how they feel about what’s happening. “We’ll fight this.” “What does the doctor know?” “Just take this natural medicine and you’ll be fine.” “Don’t cry. Be strong.” Ask, don’t tell.

2. Judging. I was shocked when a friend told my brother John that he caused his brain cancer by spending too much time in his head. Excuse me? Cancer was his fault? Blaming him for his illness was like rubbing salt in a wound.

Sadly, family members sometimes judge and growl each other at times of crisis. “You’re not spending enough time at the hospital. Don’t you care about your mama?” This is SO unhelpful. When everyone is hurting, kindness and tact are more important than ever.

3. Guilting the grieving person for not moving on after a death. The number one “least helpful” behaviour identified during my workshop in Rarotonga on ‘Tools for Healing’ was feeling pushed by well-meaning friends and family to get over their grief quickly, even when a son or daughter had committed suicide. Blaming them for having no faith is even more hurtful.

Grief takes whatever time it takes. It cannot be rushed or denied. Isaiah 49:15-16 says, “I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”.

4. False reassurances. “You’ll come out of this.” “You’ll feel better in a few months.” One of my least favourites when I was carrying deep heartache was, “This has many gifts in it. You’ll experience more joy when you stop grieving.” Oy!

What IS helpful is an attitude of openness, compassion and detachment, and having what I call the “sacred curiosity” to ask open ended-questions such as, “How are you, really?” “How are things for you now?” “What’s the hardest thing about this?” “What gives you comfort?” And then listening peacefully.

The willingness to let someone cry, to listen to their pain, then to acknowledge a virtue is a deeply encouraging gift. “I see your strength to go through this.” “You really love your mama.” “You’re showing such resilience to carry on.” Pray with them if they wish it, but not at them.

Author Peter Feddema said, “The will of God will never take us where the grace of God cannot sustain us”.

What helps to sustain us is someone who has no agenda to fix, rescue or change us, but who is willing simply to be there, to keep us company with peace, respect and compassion.

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