We sat on the couch, side by side, but miles apart. She had just lost her son in a tragic accident. I had four living and healthy boys — and no words that could touch her loss. In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote notes, shared Scripture verses, listened to her sadness, and showed up at her door bearing food, but never feeling confident that any of it held meaning, and often feeling as if I was missing the whole point.
Nancy Guthrie writes to bring clarity and a measure of confidence to people like me: those of us who want to help and bring comfort to our grieving friends, but want to avoid saying all the wrong words and assuming things that are not true. Her “research” for What Grieving People Wish You Knew was gritty and uninvited, and began on the day when her infant daughter Hope was diagnosed with a rare and fatal metabolic disorder. Grief “barged through the door,” and Hope’s 199-day life was a day-by-day good bye that was all too short.
Certainly, this experience alone would qualify a well-known Bible teacher like Nancy to speak wisdom into the lives of those who grieve, but then, a year and a half after Hope’s death, Nancy discovered that she was, once again, pregnant with a baby who had the fatal syndrome and who also lived for about six months. Working through all this sadness sharpened Nancy’s awareness that often, when Christians try to help those who have suffered losses, we mainly reveal that we just don’t “get it.”
In response, she conducted an online survey in which she asked grieving people for examples of what others said or did for them that proved to be helpful and meaningful. She shares many of these suggestions in her book, and they were truly a highlight, including thoughts as simple (and as obvious) as using the name of the deceased in casual conversation or sharing pictures and memories with family members.
Under the best of circumstances I’m not a great conversationalist, so it was a relief to me to hear the news that “it matters less what you say than that you say something.” In fact, “even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving.” This is absolutely critical, and with that taken care of, Nancy goes on to provide additional insights:
- Grieving is as unique as the individuals who grieve. There is no one-size-fits-all comfort formula.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Don’t assume anything about their feelings, about the spiritual condition of the deceased, or that your own grief experience is comparable — or helpful to share.
- Don’t feel the need to be a fixer.
- Examine your heart for selfish motives in your caring or for a warped tendency to get your own need for significance met by ministering to your grieving friend.
Nancy quotes Dr. Kenneth Haugk who cautions us that if you hear yourself starting a sentence with the words “Well, I . . “; “When I . . .”; “I remember . . .”; or “My . . . ” — just don’t say it.
Other red flags that call for a re-thinking of our words include:
“Well, at least . . .”
“It was God’s will . . .”
“I know someone else who . . .”
“God took him/her so that . . .”
According to Nancy, one of the best statements you can make is “I don’t what what to say,” while one of the incorrect assumptions we make is that the grieving family is being ministered to by people who are “closer” to them, or, even worse, that they would rather just be left alone. Showing up makes a powerful statement of support.
Esteeming the grief of those we love will look like patience and will keep us from putting a deadline on someone else’s grieving process. It will keep us from looking away when they cry, and will give us courage to shed our own tears in their presence, because this demonstrates the fact that their loved one is worth grieving for. Our shared sadness is tangible evidence of our love.
Nancy and her husband David host respite retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are actively involved in GriefShare which offers a ministry of education and counseling for those who are walking through loss. She encourages grieving families to laugh and reminisce together and to seek community rather than trying to soldier their way through healing alone.
Over the long haul, friends who mark their calendar to remind them of anniversaries and birthdays, who provide practical help ranging from the casserole brigade to the repair of the broken back step, who offer to baby sit for children, or contribute money for the onslaught of expenses are truly demonstrating the love of Christ and are helping their grieving friends move toward healing and hope.
What Grieving People Wish You Knew is a resource of words and ideas, and it’s a gift to readers which will certainly result in greater courage and a more sensitive engagement of the Body of Christ with those who need to experience first hand the love and mercy of God.
This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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