What’s the best way to discourage a grieving friend? I can tell you what I’ve done.
I’ve asked numerous questions, trying to fully assess the situation. I’ve mentioned others who are going through similar trials, extolling their bravery and faithfulness. I’ve freely doled out advice, even mini-sermons, to my friends about how their painful situations will turn out for the best.
I wasn’t trying to be discouraging. I was trying to help. Surprisingly, my advice didn’t help at all. My words just added to their pain.
I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of “help” as well.
Let Them Process Differently
That “help” has cut deeply. It has left me feeling judged and misunderstood in the midst of my struggle. It has made my burden heavier. It has made me feel lonely and isolated, wondering who was safe to talk to.
A friend once confided that she admired how I grieved. Apparently, my grief was more God-honoring than the sorrow of those who seemed defined by their pain. At first, I was flattered by the favorable comparison, but later her words troubled me. I didn’t want to be compared to others in my grief. There isn’t one “right” way to grieve. I wanted the freedom to be honest about future pain without feeling judged.
When we analyze grieving people, we add to their burden. Everyone processes loss differently, whether they are grieving the loss of a loved one, loss of health, lost relationships, or even lost dreams. Offering suggestions can feel like judgment, and careless words can cut deeply. We can become like Job’s comforters, who went on and on, speaking about things they neither knew nor understood.
Pat Answers for Deep Pain
Job said, as expanded in the New Living Translation, “I have heard all this before. What miserable comforters you are! Won’t you ever stop blowing hot air? What makes you keep on talking? I could say the same things if you were in my place. I could spout off criticism and shake my head at you. But if it were me, I would encourage you. I would try to take away your grief” (Job 16:2–5 NLT).
Job wanted his comforters to stop talking. Stop blowing hot air. Stop criticizing and judging. He longed for them to listen. To encourage him. To think about what he needed in his grief.
I’ve been like Job’s friends more often than I care to remember. And I’ve been in Job’s place too. I’ve been a miserable comforter, and I’ve received miserable comfort. Here is what I’ve learned from both sides of the fence: When I’m in agony, I don’t want trite comments. When someone tells me to count my blessings, that my plight could be worse, that there are starving orphans in Africa who have a much harder situation, I want to scream. Of course, these things are all true. But at that moment, they feel irrelevant.
Pat answers sound sermonizing. Saying that all things work together for good is absolutely true — and unspeakably precious — but it can feel hollow at a funeral.
How to Magnify Pain
Those of us who have faced our own losses can be the worst offenders. It’s easy to forget the intensity and all-encompassing nature of grief after the years have passed. Grief can be like a steamroller, flattening everything in its wake. We are often at its mercy.
Some people feel the sharp edge of grief for years, while others bounce back quickly without much struggle. In many people’s eyes, those with the fewest tears are the ones with the strongest faith. Cheerful Christians who face trials with smiles on their faces, who never seem discouraged, are held up as the models for others.
True, I may not be healing as fast as they are. Perhaps they are trusting God more than I am. Maybe their situations are harder than mine. Perhaps I am living in the past. But when friends minimize my struggle, it magnifies my pain. I feel judged. Misunderstood. Their dismissal makes me want to explain my miseries in excruciating detail, so others can validate my hardship.
Works in Progress
The fact is that I don’t always handle my trials well. I’m broken. A work in progress. I don’t like having things unravel. I can take some suggestions, but I’m fragile. I need encouragement to balance out any advice. And mostly I need grace. It’s hard to present a perfect, put-together self when life is crushing me.
Yet I know that my friends with advice have good intentions. They don’t want me to be overwhelmed, held captive to my struggles. They don’t want me to be defined by my trials. They want me to find joy in the present.
Those are worthy goals, but no one should presume that our input will lessen people’s pain. Transforming our suffering is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit and not the product of good advice. Our main work is to pray.
What’s Most Comforting?
So how should we treat our grieving friends? What does being a friend to someone in need even look like? What should we say to our neighbors who are struggling?
From my experience, the most comforting thing we can do in the moment is to sit with them and mainly listen. Job’s friends said a lot of damaging things, but when they first saw him, “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).
Having someone listen as I pour out my heart has helped me more than any words ever have. I just want someone to be there. To weep with me. To pray for me. To not expect me to have perfect theology. To let me rant. What an amazing gift it is not to feel judged by every desperate word I utter. We need to remember there is mystery in suffering. We don’t understand the ways of God. Job’s friends thought they understood, so they wrongly blamed Job for his pain. There are no easy answers in grief.
Lay Down Your Expectations
It’s easy to discourage a struggling friend. Trust me, I know. But I’m challenging you, me, all of us, to put down our expectations of our suffering friends. Let’s stop trying to “fix” them. Don’t bludgeon them with theology. Trust that God is working in them, and be patient while they process.
Instead, let’s sit with our friends. Cry with them. Support them as they grieve. They need grace to heal. Remember, we don’t need to be a savior for our grieving friends. They already have One — and so do we.