Loss is a universal experience.
Grief is a response to loss.
Thus, grief is a universal experience.
Every single person, at some time, in some way, will grieve. They will experience the roaring ravages of love and loss, the gaping hole torn in the center of the only life they’ve ever known, and the void that now stands in its wake.
And yet, despite an incidence of 100%, our cultural grief support system is woefully inadequate (if it even exists at all).
Our social infrastructure doesn’t support grief; there’s just no room for it, no carved-out space to patiently nurture those who hurt. The infrastructure does support pain and loss, but only because they are perceived as instantaneous or temporary phenomena.
Western culture specializes in Facebook posts and GoFundMe campaigns (both of which do have a place in grief support, by the way); we’re quick to like, share, and comment, or donate $20 to someone’s campaign (then like, share, and comment on that, too).
As I said, social media and charitable platforms like GoFundMe can play a crucial role in grief support – they certainly did for me and Kailen. The kindness and generosity of complete strangers, largely conveyed through the medium of GoFundMe, is the primary reason we were able to pay our medical bills. So please don’t think I’m bashing these platforms; they’re powerful tools and we’re fortunate to have them.
The issue is that they’re symptomatic of a larger problem: the gratification is instant, and it’s all about us.
These are the viral flaws at the core of grief’s social stigma – impatience, selfishness, and a general lack of understanding.
For these reasons, and considering the universality of grief, I believe it’s absolutely essential that we establish concrete, high-integrity resources for those trying to love grieving hearts. Though selfishness and impatience (and possibly laziness) certainly contribute to our society’s flawed grief support system, it’s the lack of understanding that is most prevalent – and luckily, most easily fixed.
In an effort to remedy that problem, I’ve compiled a list of 7 rules for effectively loving a grieving heart. Each of these principles have been distilled out of my own personal experiences or from those of close friends that have also grieved deeply.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start:
1) Exhibit ministry of presence
When Job had quite literally lost everything, the only thing that helped was the simple presence of his friends. They came; they sat with him; they weren’t afraid of boredom or awkwardness or pain. Nor did they do anything miraculous. In most cases, they just sat there.
And guess what? That was miraculous.
Go. Be there. Sit with your loved one. And do not be afraid of tears, silence, laughter, or any combination of the three.
2) Avoid platitudes at all costs
By my count, we have about 15-20 “funeral phrases.” You know what I’m talking about – our mainstay cliches that rescue us from awkward silences and keep the line moving.
Don’t wince, it’s just the truth. And truth is the only way out of this maze.
Resist, resist, with all your might. Do not say “they’re in a better place,” or “their work here is complete and now they can rest,” or “you’ll see them again someday,” or “be thankful for the time you had,” or “now you have a new purpose in life.”
Say, “I’m sorry for your loss and I love you.”
Then merely be still, and stand unmoving in the void.
3) Save your opinions
I cannot overstate this, nor will I pull any punches – your opinions are not helpful and the griever does not want them. They likely do not care what you think, and they shouldn’t.
This grief doesn’t belong to you, and there is no room for your judgement; the griever’s timeline is his and his alone.
If you have passionate thoughts about when the griever should “move on” with life, who they should date and when, where they should work, or live, how much they should be sleeping, whether or not they get a dog, what they eat for breakfast, or what color shirt they’re wearing, please keep them to yourself.
They aren’t helpful. At all. Ever.
4) Employ the 3 R’s: Resiliency, Reliability, and Realness
Resiliently stand alongside your loved one, in laughter and tears, in complete silence and agonizing screams. Do it reliably, every single day (or as often as you can), and if you say you’re going to do something or be somewhere, be unfailingly true to your word. And lastly, make your words raw and real. The only cure for cliche is candor, even when it’s ugly.
Loved one: *Stares at you blankly through tear-stained eyes*
You: “This friggin’ sucks.”
Loved one: *Either softly laughs or cries* “Yeah, it really does.”
5) Take initiative, but respect privacy
As a general rule, don’t ask if you can help.
Bring food over, take out the trash, run errands, mow the yard.
But temper your generosity through a filter of privacy. Remember that the griever, in the midst of their trauma, may endure wide emotional fluctuations over the course of a day, an hour, or even a few minutes. Keep this in mind if you’re helping clean the house, do dishes, or run the laundry – some of these seemingly mundane items might be sacred or private to the griever.
When in doubt, ask permission. Otherwise, don’t ask your loved one if they need help or what you can do to make their day easier. They probably don’t know the answer. They need you to take the initiative, and outside of a rare few exceptions, they will greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness.
6) Eliminate all societal expectations
When a mutual friend sees you in the produce aisle and whispers, “I heard she’s dating again. It’s only been 3 months. That’s a little callous, don’t you think? Maybe even a tad scandalous, if you ask me. Everyone’s talking about it down at the salon.”
Politely lean in and whisper back, “In point of fact, she didn’t ask you, and please tell the girls down at the salon to shove off.”
*This one’s fairly straightforward, but if you’re uncertain, always revert back to Rule #3*
7) Make the hard choice
In order to truly love your friend through their grief, you must willingly choose to witness their agony. Don’t lather it with cliches or turn away when it hurts too much or abandon them when things get heated in the produce aisle – love them hard.
You cannot fix their pain, but by standing in the void alongside them, you may be the one thing that saves them from oblivion.
Watching someone suffer is hard. But suffering alone is much harder.
Bryan C. Taylor grew up on a farm in small-town western Kentucky, where his dreams of becoming an author had their origins on an ancient Dell desktop. In addition to his books, Bryan maintains a blog about grief at www.bryanctaylor.com/blog, where he seeks to teach others the many lessons his late wife, Kailen, taught him. Bryan is the #1 Bestselling Author of EVEN IF YOU DON’T: A love story, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle eBook.
For Bryan and Kailen’s full story, including an unfiltered account of their 3-year war with Stage IV breast cancer, and Kailen’s ultimate passing at age 25, check out their #1 bestselling book here: https://www.amazon.com/Even-you-dont-love-story/dp/1983414042/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518810888&sr=8-1&keywords=even+if+you+don%27t+bryan+taylor
To read more of Bryan’s thoughts on how life can be a fairytale, even when it’s a tragedy, follow his weekly blog posts at http://www.bryanctaylor.com/blog