What can I say? What can I do? Death and the storm of grief that follows can challenge the best intentions of supportive friends. There is no bandage for this injury, no balm for this pain. Nonetheless, help is needed and there are good things to say and do.
First let me review what not to say or do. Do not say, "I know just how you feel."
Since every grief experience is unique, you do not know, cannot know. Your point of comparison can be insensitive, even brutal.
Avoid the pompous piousity of "It's the Lord's will." How do you know His will? Do you understand how this will be interpreted by the grieving person? The assertion that the deceased is better off might be true but ignores the present pain of the survivor. The assurance that "this will pass" is probably not true and certainly meaningless at the moment.
Do not remove without permission and personal insight things that belonged to the deceased. Linking objects are part of emotional coping for those in grief. Do not push for quick "recovery." Serious wounds take time to heal and leave enduring scars. Do not lecture on what they should or should not be doing. If you have been there yourself, some patient and gentle sharing might be helpful.
What to say? With a firm squeeze of the hand or embrace, say "I am so sorry." If it is truly true, you might also say, "I love you." If the relationship has been close, you might share a personal story and that might be repeated for weeks and months in warm conversations. The last thing that grieving people want is for their loved ones to be forgotten and for them to be avoided in conversations.
What can I do? Plenty. Stay close. Leave "breathing room," but stay close. Some time alone is needed, but stay close enough that it will be easy to reach out to you for comfort or help. You might be able to help with thank-you notes or the disposal of excess food donations. You might run errands, answer the telephone, make phone calls or pay bills. Being useful is ministry. Grief makes people forgetful, so you might become a rememberer, a reminder person.
It is important to be patient. In grief, people repeat themselves: experiences from the past, the death event, favorite things about their loved ones. They are talking about things that are important to them. So, listening is an act of love and just as valuable at the tenth telling as at the first, just as important in the tenth month on the first day. It is not necessary to think up wise replies. Just let them talk. They will judge you to be wise and loving.
In time, try to include them in interesting, useful things. Be patient, but push or pull gently. Meaningful activity is the best medicine to lessen the pain of grief.
Forget me not. Most survivors are showered with attention at the time of the death and funeral. There is food — lots of food — even though there is no appetite. There are visits and phone calls that herald a host of caring people, even though one does get weary. There are flowers and other tributes. Then the flood becomes a trickle and soon dries up. All the sources of sound fall silent and the void of human contact lays bare the essence of grief.
Forget me not. Continue to call. Drop in for a visit, even if it is brief. And when you do, remember to listen, even if it is to the same old litany. Bring some favorite food. Don't leave. Share the meal. Empty chairs around a mostly empty table at that special time of breaking bread together scream out, "Empty life."
Alternately, invite the bereaved to a meal, preferably at home, but being together at a restaurant is valuable. I have friends who do this. Conversation only occasionally turns to my loss, but it is OK if it does, and they have challenges in their lives, too, which we share and bear together.
Recall that grief moves from the center of consciousness but never goes away. It is good to reach out to the bereaved far beyond the loss event. Anniversaries are hard times that regularly rekindle grief through the years. There are people who send me "thinking of you" comfort notes at key times by mail, email, Facebook and phone. What to do? Ask. "Would you like to get together sometime soon and talk?" "Is there anything that I can help you with today or in the next few days?" Ask such things regularly. None of this is easy. Those who are angels in human form pay a price. "Whom shall I send? Who will go for me?"
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.