Dealing With Death--Helping Someone Grieve





Introduction: Dealing With Death--Helping Someone Grieve

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People do not like to think about death. But, it can come at any age. You may be faced with helping someone grieve when you least expect it.

I have been a pastor since 1972. I have sometimes had as many as 15 funerals in one year. This Instructable will share some things to do when helping a friend through grief. It will also share some available resources.

(The illustrations used in this Instructable have been shamelessly stolen without attribution from Google Images.)

Step 1: We Expect Death for the Aged.

When people become advanced in age we observe certain declines in their function and we know they will die one day. Both of my parents died within the last 10 years. They each experienced several years of deteriorating health. We all became very much aware they would die one day and had time to prepare for it mentally. In both cases, I found myself praying that God would take them soon and end their difficulties. Still, there is some grieving.

Step 2: Teens Die, Too.

The second funeral I remember attending was for a fellow high school student who died in a traffic accident. I was 16 years old. Such things were not supposed to happen.

Step 3: Grief Stages

You may have heard there are four stages of grief people have identified. The graphic is self-explanatory. Acceptance does not mean the grieving person forgets about the one who has died, but that he or she is able to go on with life and function normally again. The one who has died will be remembered and there will be a sense of loss felt, but grief does not hobble normal life.

We tend to allow people a few weeks and imagine they are over their grief. In reality, aspects of grief persist for between 2 and 10 years. If we find ourselves helping someone with grief, we need to remember it lasts longer than we think.

A college friend lived in the same small town where we lived and served a church in the next town. His children and ours played together. We all often socialized together on Friday evenings. One day I got a call that the old car he was restoring had fallen on him and he was dead. My experience with grieving over him was waves of sadness that suddenly and unexpectedly wash over you when you least expect it. In time they became less intense and less frequent.

Sometimes people become stuck in one of the stages of grief and do not advance to the next stage. They will likely need to talk with a professional counselor.

Step 4: You Feel Helpless.

When faced with the grief of someone close to you, you feel so very helpless. You probably want to fix the situation. But, you cannot take away the other person's grief. Do not even try. And, do not tell the other person you know just how they feel. You do not.

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Women are especially good at holding one another up literally and figuratively. Let the person grieving lead.

One of the first experiences I had with a grieving family as a pastor involved someone I had met only once. The man died unexpectedly at home in the bathroom. I went to be with them and said virtually nothing. I think I read a Psalm and said a short prayer, but mostly, I just sat there. Months later the widow said to me, "We know you did not know what to say. But it helped a lot that you were there." If you can be available, it helps a lot.

You have probably heard of Hospice. They have a saying, "People do not mind dying. They just do not want to die alone." People know they must experience grief, they just do not want to do it alone.

Step 5: Learn to Listen

You may be a good listener naturally. If so, you are unusual. When most of us do not know what to say, we talk more. Ask some friends to tell you if you need to improve your listening skills.

One of the better resources for listening is the book Listening and Caring Skills for Ministry by John Savage. Although Savage writes for churches and church people, there is nothing in the book that is particularly "churchy." It is really quite general. No matter how much experience or training you have had with active listening, you will learn some new and very helpful things from Savage.

Talking is therapeutic for the person in grief. Talking is a necessary way of working through one's grief. If you can be a good listener, you can help a great deal.

Step 6: Another Very Good Resource

Many years ago someone gave me a copy of To Everything There Is a Season from Kairos Publishing. You can find Kairos on-line at

Kairos specializes in helps for people in grief, and for those who are with them while they are grieving. This booklet is very well written and people receive it very well. While it is Christian, it could be used beneficially by anyone. The author understands the grieving process very well and is very helpful. As a pastor, I keep a good supply of these booklets on my shelf at all times. Your grieving friend will appreciate this booklet.

Step 7: Support Groups

Funeral homes are not just for funerals. Most funeral homes now offer help for care after the funeral in the form of support groups for people who recently lost loved ones. Although you can be a big help to a grieving friend, no one understands and can help like someone who is experiencing the very same things. Call your local funeral home and ask about grief support groups they might be sponsoring and when those groups meet. A local Hospice office can also put you in contact with a grief support group.

Step 8: Anniversary Dates

Certain dates on the calendar will be hard for a grieving person. If someone lost a spouse, the day of their wedding anniversary will be a difficult day. The birthday of the one who died will be a hard day for the grieving survivor, and probably the birthday of the one grieving, too. Holidays, like Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving will be difficult times. Another difficult day is the anniversary of the person's death. You may even notice changes in mood and behavior as one of these dates approaches. These are times for you to be especially aware and available. John Savage (Step 5) writes a great deal about anniversary stories. It is important to let the grieving person tell these stories and important for you to listen to them. You may not at first even sense the reason why the story is important.

As a pastor I make a note in my electronic scheduler when someone dies and put that note one year into the future. When that note surfaces in my calendar a year later, I try to phone the survivor. I do not need to say much. I just say I noticed it has been a year since the loved one died. Then the survivor begins talking. The call does not take long, but the survivor thanks me very appreciatively. It means a lot that someone remembered.

Above all, do not panic when you suddenly find yourself helping someone through grief. You have the opportunity to be of more help than you know.



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    28 Discussions

    At school we were taught not to say "I sympathise with you" We were told to tell the person that we "empathise " with them. That makes sense to me. I've also heard that when you tell a person you (" I am sorry for your loss.") that you're focus is on you rather than the person. Perhaps that is just too much reading into the comment. I found when someone said that to me, I was comforted. What do you think about all this?

    1 reply

    We all struggle with what to say when confronted with another person's sorrow. The theory behind what to say probably has merit, but we need to make some slack for anyone who reaches out to us, even if the wording is not perfect. An exception to this would be if the non-verbal signals indicated the comments were only glib and perfunctory with no real concern for our sorrow.

    Thank you. I've lost several friends, and this is good material. I was in an odd spot because even while I was grieving, I was with friends who were grieving more and I wound up comforting some of them. I wish I had something like this then. Again, thank you very much.

    2 replies

    You are very welcome. You were probably more help to your friends than you know. I do not think there is a formula one can follow for helping people with grief. It means a lot that they know you care. Also, it is good to avoid clueless remarks. An acquaintance told me about when her husband died of cancer. Someone in a helping profession told her, "When you married him you must have known that this could happen because he was so much older than you." That did not help her and she perceived it as crude and insensitive.

    I can see how that wouldn't help, and make the situation worse. It feels terrible when it seems that no one else cares, like it's wrong to feel the way you do. It isn't, it's natural, and if someone is there with you it passes more smoothly. They don't have to say a word, but when you see them and they see you, there's a connection and you know they're there. I'm not sure if I'm making a lot of sense now, but I think you'll get the gist of what I'm meaning. Thank you.

    Nice 'ible, Phil. Grief affects people in a variety of ways, and your 'ible is an understanding read. My father actually died in the bathroom...on his birthday...just hours before his birthday party, back around '86. And for some reason, my grandfather's death, in '76, hits me much harder than my father's. I will STILL break out in tears at times thinking of my grandfather, much beloved, while with my father...not so much. So there are degrees, as well as steps, to death and reaction. Thank you.

    Phil, Thank you for this instructable. I'd read Killerjackalope's similar ible some time ago, and it's nice to see another one. I especially like it from a pastor's perspective, as I too usually approach it in a simialr capacity. As a minister, I deal with this sort of thing very regularly (at least 4 or 5 times a year). Having done it for nearly 20 years now has still not made it any easier. I can honestly say, people tell me I do "the best" funerals they've ever seen (even though I don't see why they feel that way). The downside is it takes soooo much out of me. I find myself very involved in most of these losses. And a time or two, I've even considered changing my ministry to one that wouldn't put me in this situation so often. One of the first funerals I did was in New Guinea. It was a boy from our youthgroup. He was murdered by his aunt (a sorceress). His family gave me his old Bible (Melanesian Pidgin), and I still pull it out occasionally and read from it, just to remember him and his faith. I lost two of my young cousins within a year of eachother some time ago. I performed one of the funerals. I find myself still grieving over those, and it's been three years. Thanks again, I really appreciate your point of view!

    1 reply

    Thanks. Sadly, it seems like after the funeral I am off and running to handle something else. The seminar I attended from which a lot of things in this Instructable came urged getting lay people involved in grief care after the funeral by teaching them things in this Instructable. The Kairos booklets are really good.

    Good materials to check into. I appreciate that you steered mostly toward material people anywhere should find informational and useful. It can make someone feel worse if you're trying to console them with your beliefs or faith when they don't share them.

    2 replies

    Someone could check the materials I mentioned. If he found them too overtly Christian for his friend's situation, he is certainly free not to use them. Still, there might be something useful he could borrow and edit. All of us will be faced with grieving friends at sometime in the future. Hopefully, this Instructable will keep people from freezing in fright when they realize there are some simple things they can do to be helpful. Many people may be unaware of grief support groups offered through funeral homes and branches of Hospice.

    Right on, like I said, this instructable is good stuff. I'm not sure I would have used a hospice support group even if I'd known my mom's had one when she got cancer but it would have been comforting to know it was there.

    I wonder what it feels like to die? I've had alot of personnal and professional exposure to dying- but still understand very little. What goes thru your mind as 'the fire goes out'?

    1 reply

    The best answer I can give you is to get and read the book Beyond Death's Door by Maurice Rawlings. It is out of print, but Amazon lists a few used copies. The author is a cardiologist who began to wonder about all of the positive near death experiences being reported. He also noticed that interviews for those experiences took place some weeks after the experiences. He began a research project in which he interviewed people very soon after their experiences. Some were positive and some were frightful. His conclusion is that not all near death experiences are positive, but people blank unpleasant experiences from their memory. It more than anything I know will answer your questions.

    On Christmas, my sister's ex boyfriend killed himself. They played soulja boy tell em at his funeral... But it was a sad time. It's strange. I don't see death in the same way as everyone else. It might just be that I'm an athiest, or it could just be that I don't actually think that death is a bad thing. It's just a stage of life that we will all have to go through. It is necessary. But I do understand the absence of a person can be quite devestating. I'm trying to comfort my sister as much as possible.

    1 reply

    My intent is not to argue that my understanding of death is better or worse than anyone else's. My point is to offer some encouragement and help by way of things I have learned over the years through experience and through seminars, encouragement for the person who finds himself needing to offer comfort to someone who has suffered a loss through death. All of us will be in that situation someday.