God will use grief to shape them, and draw them closer to himself. You cannot fix or take away their pain. But you can sit beside them as they cry or listen while they talk about their loss.
by Aubrey Sampson, author of The Louder Song, originally published on The Disciple-Maker Blog
Advice (or Not): Advice about Advice
At a women’s retreat, I open up for the first time about my illness. I talk about how I feel ashamed of it, how it redefines me. I speak about how I used to run and exercise but how I can’t do much of that any more, at least not in the same way. I tell these ladies that I know this disease didn’t attack the brain, but sometimes my brain just wants a break from having to process this new reality.
I don’t say this at the retreat, but I actually begin to feel grateful for pain’s unique counsel. I start to believe that life’s pains can surprisingly become gifts. Suffering shakes up everything, but eventually, it all must settle. With Jesus at our side, it all settles on hope.
A woman walks up to me after I finish speaking. She wears amber-colored bracelets on one arm, stacked all the way up to her elbow. “Can I offer you some advice?” she asks.
At this point in my illness, I receive a lot of unsolicited advice, and I’ve grown a little cynical. I confess that my thoughts are not full of gratitude. I think, Oh, great, here we go again. Let me guess. Is it turmeric? Is it Paleo? Is it the magical bracelets you’re wearing?
She continues, “When you feel like crap, order takeout. Don’t cook and don’t you dare feel guilty about it. If you can’t show up, don’t. If you need to take time off, take it. If you want to wear a hat because your hair is falling out, spend some money on a great hat. If you want to eat chocolate, keep chocolate stocked in the pantry. And if you can’t run because you experience too much pain, don’t run. Rest. Because, my dear, you have value; you are worthy of self-care.”
I compliment her bracelets and tell her it’s the best advice I’ve ever received.
If you’ve ever been in a hard season, you know that advice is a tricky thing. It’s well meant, of course. But in their attempt to be helpful, a lot of people can say stuff that’s, well … not. So if you’re walking with someone who’s going through some serious pain, here are some genuine ways you can help without giving advice.
Know that the grieving person will always be a grieving person—from now on. They know this, but sometimes we need to accept it, and sometimes we need to become less awkward about and around our loved one’s grief. Their grief might become less raw over the years. But grief remains with a person his or her whole life. God will use grief to shape them, and draw them closer to himself. You cannot fix or take away their pain. But you can sit beside them as they cry or listen while they talk about their loss. You can allow them to scream and fall down crying and say unedited things without correcting them.
Grieving people are afraid that you will either forget their pain or forget the one they’ve lost. It helps if you remember anniversaries of deaths or birthdays or diagnoses. Send cards or a text on those days. Share memories you have of their loved ones. Remind them that you see them.
The person in pain doesn’t need you to help steer them to the bright side. In fact, they might need the opposite—validation. Assure them that what they are going through is a big deal—and can be a big deal for as long as they need it to be.
Err on the side of coming near. Err on the side of being made a fool. Err on the side of saying I’m sorry more than you should, even if you had nothing to do with their sorrow. Err on the side of letting your wife or husband or sister or friend grieve longer than you think he or she should. Be intentional to embrace their grief without fear. Ask open ended questions: How is your grief today? How is your heart? What are you thinking about? And listen. Sometimes the grieving person needs space. But mostly they want to be met where they grieve. Practice the ministry of presence. This is, after all, what the hurting person wants—friends who are near, who minimize nothing, who lament with.
For people in chronic pain, it can feel like an imposition to ask for help. But they need help.
Here are some practical things to offer:
“I made dinner/grabbed a latte for you. It’s on your front porch.”
“I rented every version of Pride and Prejudice. Can I bring them over one night? You can pick your favorite Mr. Darcy. PS: It’s always Colin Firth.”
“I rented every Marvel movie for you. You can pick your favorite Avenger. PS: It’s always Thor.”
“Can I come over and pray for you/with you? I won’t linger.”
“Choose one of the following and I will do it for you today: (a) take your kids away from you for a couple of hours; (b) do your laundry at my house; or (c) take you for a night out.”
“I paid for a housecleaner to come to your house this week.”
You get the idea. Generally speaking, practical help and lots of compassion are all you need to offer. (And yes, it’s not lost on me that this is an advice list about not giving advice. I like to think of myself not as a hypocrite but as meta.)
The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament by Aubrey Sampson
Lament helps us hear God’s louder song.
When you’re in the midst of suffering, you want answers for the unanswerable, resolutions to the unresolvable. You want to tie up pain in a pretty little package and hide it under the bed, taking it out only when you feel strong enough to face it. But grief won’t be contained. Grief disobeys. Grief explodes. In one breath, you may be able to say that God’s got this and all will be well. In the next, you might descend into fatalism. No pretending. Here, you are raw before God, an open wound.
There is a pathway through this suffering. It’s not easy, but God will use it to lead you toward healing. This path is called lament. Lament leads us between the Already and the Not Yet. Lament minds the gap between current hopelessness and coming hope. Lament anticipates new creation but also acknowledges the painful reality of now. Lament recognizes the existence of evil and suffering—without any sugarcoating—while simultaneously declaring that suffering will not have the final say.
In the midst of your darkest times, you will discover that lament leads you back to a place of hope—not because lamenting does anything magical, but because God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song of renewal and restoration.
This is SO right on! I need to read and reread and also share it with everyone. Excellent! ?
All of what I needed to hear in this storm. I felt you hug through your words. I simply want to say, Thank you! ?
Very much liked your article.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful word picture?
Every word of this applies to those of us suffering grief over loss of health due to chronic pain, rare diseases, etc. A kind of pain that people devalue and even question the legitimacy of. Thank you. I feel I understand the book of Lamentations a bit better as well. My period of lament seems neverending… their is always a new loss as an incurable condition steals away another piece of you.
Thank you for a true description and validation of grief. It is very hard to explain it to someone who has never experienced a great loss. The broken hearted feel isolated but also desire isolation. Thank you again for articulating the grief experience as well as how to support someone who is grieving.
Wow!! This was such an amazing article. It’s definitely an inspirational article that I would love to share!
I can relate to many of these suggestions, and know they would have been very welcome during a crisis I experienced.
Such a thoughtful article.
I have this chronic pain. Some days are worse than others but everyday I’m in pain. I have fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis and ruined all my shoulder muscles and back muscles working at a nursing home for 27 yrs as a CNA
I am one of these people. I have fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis and worked for 27 years as a CNA. My shoulders and back muscles are terrible. Our families need to help us as much as possible. But lots of time they don’t understand. Thanks for this article
Thank you for this post. So helpful and so timely.
This article allowed me to view grief/pain, etc. from a different view. It gave me new respect. Thanks for the article.
I love so much about this article and plan to read the book as well. I have fibromyalgia and lost my mom suddenly in September 2018. The grief has been overwhelming. This article is spot on for what those who are experiencing grief and pain need. I found the statement that we are afraid others will forget our loved one to be so accurate. It has been 6 months and I fear others are forgetting my special Mom. The grief can so easily overwhelm and I am learning to accept that. I agree with the author that validation and presence are so important to one who is hurting.
Wow, good job for writing this so well. Thank you! I had Lyme disease for years, so this was great to read!
Beautiful message. There are times when we need to sit still and let others talk, vent, share, cry or sit still with us.
Wonderful and thought provoking. Good ideas.
All the above was very interesting to read.
This is such great advice on “not giving advice” but just coming alongside those who are hurting. As a former pastor’s wife I wish I had read this a lot sooner in life but thankful for these tips at this time of my life journey!!
[…] Helping someone who is grieving can feel as challenging as experiencing grief yourself. We often don’t know what to say or do, because no words or deeds will erase the pain or undo the loss. But neither do we want to leave our loved ones alone in their grief, so what can we do? Here are five ways to help someone who is grieving. […]
[…] for adults, check out our other articles on Ways to Help Someone Who is Grieving and How to Come Alongside Someone Going through Pain, as well as Tyndale’s current sale on Resources for Navigating Grief (now through July […]