When friends or loved ones are overwhelmed with grief, we often feel helpless at best and harmful at worst. This is probably why the most common question I receive as a pastor is how to help the hurting. The pastorate is viewed as the vocation of comfort, and so I think people expect us to know how to navigate the complexities of suffering. The truth is, that is a pastoral skill that cannot be taught in seminary but is forged in hospital rooms, living rooms, and counseling rooms. That said, there are 5 principals that I have developed as a guide to caring for the mournful, and this is usually what I pass along to people when they ask for help. Someone recently suggested I put it on the blog as a resource for everyone, so here you go.
5 Things the mournful need:
Someone to be with them
The most important thing to do is just seek them out. They will not ask for help, they will not ask you to visit, and they will even want to retreat. But they need the presence of a friend who loves them, whether they know it or not. Typically, I won’t ask; I just show up (I have that special privilege being a pastor, so you will just have to gauge the level of intimacy you share with the hurting). If I call them, I don’t ask if they would like a visitor, because they will usually refuse. Instead, I will say something like, “When would be a good time for me to stop in.” And it’s merely your pursuit and presence that is enough. Don’t feel the need to talk, cheer them up, or even to converse. There have been times where I have visited, given an initial hug and condolences, and just sat with them for long periods of time. Job’s friends got this part right (Job 2:13). It’s when they opened their mouths and tried to bring control and clarity to the situation that they became unhelpful
Someone to serve them
When you are in grief, the smallest tasks become insurmountable. Foresee their everyday needs and take care of them. Cook them meals, mow their grass, babysit their kids, run their errands, etc. It will feel like their life is spinning out of control, and the most helpful thing you can do is to bring order to the chaos.
Someone to remember them
Everyone comforts the grieving initially, but those who have gone through tragedy will tell you that there is a point that the world seems to move on, and you are left stuck in the grief. This is when they most need care. Most people are able to get through the early days of sorrow on adrenaline alone, and it’s not until things slow down that they truly begin to process and mourn. So when they most need help is when people tend to move on. If you really want to love them, don’t move on, but enter into their timetable of grief. Continue to stop in, send them notes on the anniversary of the tragedy, surprise them with acts of kindness long after everyone has stopped serving, and most of all, be patient with their grief; don’t expect them to “move on.”
Someone who can’t relate
Don’t pretend to know what it’s like; you don’t. Don’t pretend to know why God allowed this to happen; you don’t. Don’t pretend to know why God let prayers go seemingly unanswered; you don’t. And for heaven’s sake don’t use this as an occasion to point out lessons they should be learning through this. Just humbly say, “I’m so sorry,” and pray with them a lot.
Someone who can relate
At the same time, it is important to point them to the One who can relate. This is the unique consultation of Christianity—A God who knows what it’s like. I often tell the mournful, “I can’t pretend to know what you are going through right now, but Jesus does.” I suppose you could say there are things that Jesus never experienced. He never lost a child, for example. But we are able to say that there is no degree of suffering He is unfamiliar with. Nobody has or ever will endure a trial like the cross, and in this way, Jesus suffers alone. Nobody can say to Jesus, I know what it’s like, but Jesus can say to every single one of us, no matter the pain, “I know what this is like.” Jesus is utterly alone in His suffering so that nobody will ever have to be alone in theirs. Don’t pretend to know what they are going through, but do lift their eyes to the one who does.
Passages to Comfort the Mournful
Comfort in the Psalms
Psalm 16, 23, 27, 46, 62, 91, 103, 118, 121, 130, 139
Comfort in General
Isaiah 40:28-31, 43:1-7, 61
Matthew 6:25-34, 11:28-30
1 Peter 5:6-7
Comfort in Death
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 50-58
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18