Grief is consuming. When something tragic happens, we wonder how the world keeps spinning, how people keep going to work and making dinner. It’s unfathomable that life cannot pause for one second so we can catch our breath. I have wanted to scream at the car next to me, “Are you enjoying that Starbucks and new Kesha song? Well good, because my best friend’s life just fell apart.”
Grief is real. I have had the privilege to walk with dear friends during seasons of unspeakable pain. I have had friends that have lost mothers, fathers, and brothers unexpectedly, friend’s whose bodies lost precious babies or cannot bare them at all, and friend’s whose relationships have imploded or have had spouses abandon them. I experienced deep grief when I lost a marriage and had no idea pain like that existed. In the darkest seasons, grief can become our greatest teacher.
How do we love friends that are hurting? How do we engage pain when we’ve never experienced their type of loss? How do we meet their needs, bring comfort, and offer hope? Friendships are built when things fall apart. I still remember walking into a hospital on Christmas Eve because my friend was living her worst nightmare. Her mother, best friend, and our greatest cheerleader’s body was failing. A week later I was woken up by the cries of another friend because her mom didn’t wake up that morning. I have received text messages from women I love with my whole heart telling me at that there was no heartbeat on that ultrasound, no reconciliation in that relationship, or no cure for that cancer. I have been found weeping on my kitchen floor because I wasn’t sure how I was going pick up the pieces of a broken marriage.
Grief is big, but our love for each other is bigger. We can walk into each other’s sadness and offer hope. In times of great loss, pain, and confusion, the greatest gift we are given is each other.
Show up, then show up again.
Grief makes you feel fuzzy. It brings a numbness that is hard to describe unless you’ve lived through it. It’s the sensation of moving in slow motion while your thoughts are racing. When loss lands on the doorsteps of the people we love, we must intentionally show up for them. Their pain will make us feel uncomfortable, and it will be easier to disengage. We do this not because we are cruel but because we are afraid. What do we even begin to say to someone that has just lost a parent or received the scariest diagnosis?
It is better to say something, anything than to remain silent. Grief can bring deep isolation and even shame. After my divorce, I appreciated every text message, handwritten note, or lunch invitation. It was the people that showed up in unexpected ways that brought heaps of hope. During this time, a friend I haven’t spoken to in a year invited me to lunch. I was terrified because I was in the trenches and had nothing to offer. She was patient and tender. She looked at me and said, “I want you to know I have always liked you for you, not just because you were his wife.” After, I ugly cried in the Whole Foods parking lot because I finally felt seen and loved for exactly who I was in my darkest season.
It is important to recognize how your friends want to be cared for and loved. Every person will cope with their grief differently, so we must love them intentionally. I have friends that go inward when they’re in pain. They prefer to be alone when they process, and learning how to support them can feel confusing. When you have friends like these, I encourage you to show up in a way that will speak to their heart. If they love coffee, send them a note and a gift card to their favorite spot. Notes, gifts, texts messages, and meals will not go unnoticed. Engage these friends with zero expectations. You’ll never regret the attempts you made to connect and console.
Respect their process
There are many stages of grief, and it’s a process. It isn’t linear or manageable. Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression can all show up on the same day. The friend you encounter on Monday may be grieving differently on Thursday, and we cannot rush them.
The killer of connection when we’re in pain is being told how we should feel or cope. The best rule of thumb: don’t “should” on them. Don’t tell them you should be grateful today, you should look on the bright side, or you should push past it. Forcing our expectations on someone in pain will cause them to shut down and evitably shut us out. A mentor of mine lost her dream job in a dramatic way. She spent a season grieving the loss of work that was meaningful, life-giving, and important. Through her journey to build and establish new dreams, she pushed back on people that urged her to move on too quickly. She had hope that beautiful things to were to come, but she needed to grieve the death of her dream. Don’t shame the people you love because you don’t understand their grief.
It mandatory that we give lots of grace too. Our hurting friends might act out, lash out, or surprise us with the words that come spilling out of their mouths; and if they open the door and begin to tell us about their pain, we must lean in and listen. Creating space and opportunity for them to share their experience is healing. Real friends lean into pain and don’t tire of listening. With their words and actions, they’ll respond tenderly and say, “Tell me again why it hurt.”
It’s not about you.
It’s not your job to understand every thought or feeling. Your friend’s fear and sadness may seem illogical, and your gut reaction will be to solve it. Resist that urge. Bringing hope isn’t about looking on the bright side or offering a plan. When those we love are in pain, our only requirement is being willing to sit in it with them even if it’s uncomfortable.
There is a beautiful pattern we can mimic when we’re speaking to someone in a hard place. First, we listen. We don’t interrupt or cut them short. We allow for every thought, word, fear or tear to spill out of them. Then, we validate the feelings, because their feelings are real. We tell them that we see them in their pain, and we hurt for them. Finally, we tenderly and carefully offer our support. Supporting is the opposite of fixing; because through support we will not claim to know the answers, but we will communicate that they will never be alone.
Recently, grief pulled me under again. My stomach will always drop when I receive the text messages that say, “Hey, call me when you get off work.” This time the news was confusing and devastating. The pain washed over me, and the fuzzy feeling of loss and despair came quickly. My friends showed up as I cried over the phone and my roommates showed up when I came home in tears; none of them asked me to be someone I wasn’t in that moment. They validated, leaned in, and were for me. They pushed me toward hope with loving kindness and glasses of white wine.
A few years ago, my two roommates and best friends lost their moms a week apart. We were the three musketeers navigating our early twenties, and this trauma wasn’t part of our plan. It felt impossible to know how to engage their pain and grief. Ellie Holcomb’s song “With You Now” was my heart’s anthem to them. The only thing I knew to do was try to walk with them. My words for them were, “When you sing your sad songs, I will learn the words and sing along.” I wanted to know their hearts, and I wanted them to know I would always be for them. Later, when I was moving into my apartment after my divorce, they gave me these words to hang on the wall. They wanted me to remember that they would walk through this pain with me as I had with them. These words are displayed in my bathroom for when I need the reminder that I will never, ever walk alone. I have my musketeers because experiencing grief together formed a friendship that continues to give us life and hope.
Life is hard, and grief is great. It is not a matter of if but when things will fall apart. If you’re reading this, chances are you know someone that is in the trenches of pain or suffering. Show up for them today. Send the text message, take the meal, write the letter, or make the phone call. Find a way today to engage their pain and be with them. We’re given each other as gifts because we desperately need each other. Life is too hard to go at it alone, and we’re all capable of bringing light in darkness.