When someone we know has lost a loved one, we want to say something meaningful and do something helpful. The last thing we want is to add to their pain. But what do we say? What do we do? Nancy Guthrie offers practical help in her new book, “What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts).”

Drawing on her own experience of the loss of two children as well as responses from people who participated in her survey about grief, Guthrie pulls back the curtain and helps readers think about how they can show love and support to someone who is mourning.

One of the interesting things about your book is the feedback from people who have experienced loss. Why include all their comments?

I wanted readers to hear from a variety of people who have experienced different kinds of losses rather than just from me and my limited experience. In my survey of grieving people I asked three questions: What is something someone said or wrote to you that was meaningful or memorable? What is something someone did for you that was helpful? And, what do you wish people understood about your grief?

The responses I got were amazing. I was often moved to tears by the simple kindnesses people showed to those who were grieving. I hope what people see when they read the things people told me were memorable and meaningful is how simple they are — saying the name of the person who died, a willingness to listen, bringing paper goods, sweeping the sidewalk.

Your first piece of advice to those who want to help is to say something. Why is this so important?

When you’ve experienced a loss, it’s as if a hurdle comes up between you and everyone you know until the loss is acknowledged in some way. The loss is the lens through which you see everything and process everything — at least for a while. When someone never acknowledges your loss with even a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss,” it feels as if they are saying that the person you love didn’t even merit a mention, that the emptiness and sorrow you are experiencing isn’t really that big of a deal. And that hurts. It diminishes your loss and dishonors the person you love.

But we often don’t say anything because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. We think we have to come up with something memorable, something that helps the person make sense of the death, something profound. But we don’t. We don’t need to offer advice or tell them a story about our own experience of grief or someone else’s. We just need to come alongside and say that we’re sad too.

You write that if you had to boil down the message of the entire book to just two words, it would be “show up.” Can you elaborate?

We can usually come up with a lot of good excuses to stay away when someone we know has lost a loved one. We think, I’m not that close to them, they probably have better friends who are coming around them. We think, there will be so many people there, they won’t notice if I’m there. We think, they probably just want their privacy. But the reality is that you remember every person who shows up at your house, at the visitation, at the funeral, at the burial.

Grief is incredibly lonely, and it is tremendously comforting to have people come around and give you the gift of their presence. The reality for many people going through grief is that some of the people closest to them, the ones they thought would be there when the going got tough, disappear. At the same time, there are those who weren’t necessarily close before who come in close and become cherished friends.

You have a chapter on ways that one can communicate love and support through social media. What can a Facebook post tell us about someone’s grief? How does my clicking the “like” button communicate love and support?

Many people today process life and relationships via social media. That means that a key way they will process grief and desire to experience relationship in the midst of grief is through social media. They post about their feelings of loss and about the person who died because they want to share those feelings and their love for that person with other people. As people interact with their posts, it soothes the deep loneliness of grief. Do some people over-post? Probably. Do we sometimes suspect people are using social media to generate sympathy or gain attention? Yes. But it really doesn’t take much for us to acknowledge their very real feelings of loss by clicking a button or leaving a comment. And it goes a long way to let them know that they’re not alone.

You believe that one of the gifts given to us in the death of someone we love is that we think more about eternal things. How is this a gift?

The pull of the world around us is to keep us focused on the here and now. But the message of the Bible is always pointing us not only toward what Christ accomplished in the past and the way the Spirit is at work in us in the present, but toward what is yet to come when Christ returns and sets everything right in this world. He will clothe us with bodies fit for living forever with him in the new heaven and new earth. The death of someone we love gets us thinking about where our real hope lies. It gets us thinking about what God is doing in this world. It gets us thinking about what really matters in this life. It gets us thinking about resurrection. And that is a gift.

How can a group like GriefShare help someone in the wake of loss?

GriefShare is a small-group ministry that meets in over 10,000 churches around the country where those who are grieving watch a video series that provides wisdom for navigating the journey through grief as well as a safe place to keep talking about the person who has died with people who understand because they’re grieving too. Because my husband, David, and I host the videos, people stop us all the time and say to us, “GriefShare saved my life.” People can find a group that meets in their area by going to griefshare.org and putting in their zip code.

What do you hope readers will learn from this book?
I hope the impact of this book is that it takes away some of the intimidation factor of interacting with someone who is grieving — that those who read it will become convinced that the smallest gesture can provide a great comfort to someone in the midst of grief, and that they’ll overcome the awkwardness to reach out.

In addition to her books on grief and loss, Guthrie has authored several devotionals and Bible studies. She speaks regularly at conferences nationally and internationally, and is a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition, including hosting the Help Me Teach the Bible podcast. She and her husband David also host weekend Respite Retreats for couples who have lost a child. For more information on Guthrie’s books, DVDs, retreats, and speaking schedule, visit NancyGuthrie.com.

3 Responses to What Grieving People Wish You Knew

  1. Pingback: Selected News Stories from Around the World* — Saturday, Feb. 18 | The BibleMesh Blog

  2. From my 11 years experience as a hospice chaplain, I often use two simple illustrations in my Christian grief counseling. I tell the bereaved to think of themselves as a door with hinges and a lock. The hinges are to open the door to other people and outside activities. The bereaved are often told by others to stay busy. But the door also has a lock so that the bereaved can be alone with their own thoughts, prayers, and tears. The second illustration compares the now deceased as having functioned while living as a mirror. When the mirror “dies”, you not only miss the mirror, but you miss seeing yourself in the mirror. This may explain some of the lost feeling as you miss yourself as known and seen in the deceased.

  3. Loren V. Watson says:

    When my wife of nearly 70 years died in 2013, the PCA Ministerial Relief sent me a book “Reflections of a Grieving Spouse” by H. Norman Wright, a retired minister who lost his wife. The subtitle is “The Unexpected Journey from Loss to Renewed Hope”. What this book made me realize was that I was not alone in my grief. Many of the things in this article are also in the book.