My dad once said, “I’ve never gone through that. I can’t help you at all.”
This from an Army veteran who got rid of his purple heart. Who tried to fix everything, and often could. Who survived being displaced from his non-profit office but kept doing the work—until the board figured out they’d made a mistake and brought him back. Who just kept pushing after a couple strokes.
But sometimes with grief, there’s nothing that can be fixed.
Sometimes bodies are so broken nothing can be done. Sometimes treatments no longer treat. Some things are final. Some things are finished.
What can you do when your friend’s heart is irreparably broken, when the things you try feel inadequate, when you feel failure because you can’t fix things for your friend, your child, your parent?
This question is fresh and comes from people like you. Or maybe you.
The other day, I said to you,
“I’m guessing that some of you are trying to figure out what to say to a friend who just had a sudden loss. And you are at a loss. I’m working on several thoughts for my weekly newsletter, “Finding words in hard times” but I want to be practically helpful if one or more of you is stuck.”
I got several responses. People had some suggestions, wanted some counsel. They described what they had done so far to be helpful.
And someone said, “I just feel helpless.”
They had provided remarkable and specific support for a friend. I couldn’t suggest anything more than they had done.
But it didn’t feel like enough.
I understand. I finish chaplaincy shifts and feel like I’ve done nothing. I go home to my family. The people I’ve been talking with have left a family member when they walk away.
But listen: Our help will never feel like enough, if our sense is that the pain will go away, that this grief situation is something that can be fixed.
Grief is not a problem to be fixed. Dementia isn’t a problem to be fixed. Losing a child cannot be fixed.
People in all those moments, however, can be helped.
Holding hands instead of offering answers.
Saying, “I don’t know, either” and then staying close.
Asking for a picture of the inside of a refrigerator (as Clarissa Moll’s mom did after Clarissa’s husband’s death.)
Letting a spouse say, “God knows how much I hate this” while standing next to the body they’ve known for decades.
Letting dinner conversations be about things other than—and about—a loved one.
In other words, the things that you have already been doing.
That’s what I would love to tell you. That the things which feel so inadequate are fundamentally helpful. They cannot fix the unfixable. But they show and share the sustaining love and presence that help.
If you are trying any of the things we’ve talked about at this site (see the archives), stop feeling like you are failing your grieving friend.
This is hard, after all. Being there is often what we can do.
My dad had the honesty to tell me about his feeling of inadequacy in the face of our loss. That honesty was comforting (and was hard for him). And he tried as much as he could to help.
It was helpful. So are you.
Some of you also asked about tragedy.
On Monday, six people were murdered in Nashville. And 7968 other people died in the United States. Some were murdered, some died with cancer. Some were in accidents, some were in hospice. Some never took a breath.
I only attended one death that day. Two other people I visited have died since.
Each is a person. Each of these thousands of families is responding in all the varied ways people respond. Disbelief, devastation, confusion, relief.
At least two things are true.
1. To the extent that deaths are delayable, that the causes of death are avoidable, we should do what we can to delay and avoid those deaths. Some things we work hard to research. Some things we work hard to ignore.
2. Five people, on average, are deeply directly affected by each of those deaths. So, forty-thousand people started their grief journey on Monday. And another group on Tuesday. And on Wednesday. And today. We are, or will be, the affected and potentially supportive.
Each of these true things gives us an opportunity to be helpful. In deeply individual and broadly communal ways.
That includes asking God for comfort. And for wisdom. And for courage. And for compassion. And, perhaps, even for forgiveness. And each of those requests includes both words and attitude and actions. each of us and us together.
As the angel in Revelation says, for those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Thank you for reading.
Thank you for penning your caring words.
God bless you and Nancy.