The gifts of friendship, presence, and listening offer the best condolences for someone grieving. Though we might feel compelled to offer clichés, or maybe even ignore the grieving due to our own discomfort, these aren't helpful. It is important for us to grieve when we have experienced loss. Acknowledging another person's grief and simply being present can be extremely helpful.
What kind of condolences should a Christian give to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one?
If the deceased person was a believer, the grieving person might find comfort in knowing that their loved one is now with God. The Bible also speaks about God comforting believers in the midst of hardships, which can include the death of a loved one. Passages like Psalm 34:17–19, Psalm 147:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, and 2 Corinthians 5:8 could be encouraging.
When the grieving one doesn't have such hope in the eternal destiny of their deceased loved one, a Christian can still provide the valuable gift of listening. In any case, it may be helpful to know about and possibly even share some of the common stages of grief.
While these stages do not occur for everyone and do not necessarily occur in linear order, some of the common ways people experience grief are:
1. Shock, which may include denial and anger as the mind is overwhelmed by what has occurred and cannot accept it.
2. Numbness, which might include a detached feeling about death. God may use this to help us slow down our wrestling with grief.
3. Struggle with reality, which could include hearing the voice of the departed, catching glimpses of them, or preparing to call them.
4. Flood of grief, sometimes after months or years have passed, that wash over us with dramatic significance. This grieving can repeat itself and the tears and the memories are helpful to work through the loss.
5. Stabbing memories can occur when someone asks about the deceased, not knowing about their death, or when we come across some item or anniversary that drives home their vacancy.
6. Finally, recovery begins to occur when we emerge into a new normal, beginning to accept the death and live our lives without the deceased one. Our lives move forward and the hurt will become less and less severe.
The stages of grief can repeat, cycle back, and move with frequency and various speeds. A person grieving will be helped by knowing these stages are normal and what they are experiencing is common to many people. Grieving is a necessary process and it takes time. It is important for the bereaved and for friends to allow the process to occur and not attempt to short-circuit it. Grieving is only harmful when a person gets stuck in it, refusing the healing and comfort God can bring.
When someone we know suffers loss, it is tempting to do nothing out of uncertainty as to how to respond or discomfort around death and the bereaved or even because we are grieving ourselves. Sometimes we want to offer condolences immediately and then expect the person to have moved beyond their grief within weeks or months. Most people, though, will appreciate compassionate expressions and offers to listen, even if we aren't sure what to say or do, and even if we're grieving ourselves. Even after the bereaved has accepted the death and is living a new normal, grief can still arise and it is just as important to be a loving presence in those times. Often the first year following the death is the hardest, so being particularly compassionate during this time can be a great relief and support to the grieving.
Grief is natural and healthy. God has built into each of us an ability to deal with grief one step at a time. God has also given us one another to be a support system. If you have a friend who is grieving, allow him to express his grief, to cry, to be angry, to be sad, to struggle. Allow him, too, to laugh and have fun. Though emotions are sometimes muted during times of grief, all of our emotional range is still present. Sometimes grieving people need a break from focusing on their loss. Maintaining some normalcy as well as some light-heartedness can be helpful. Simply be available and present, listen to your friend, and seek to love him well right where he is.
Sometimes, a grieving friend will want to ask you about eternity. Be careful not to judge whomever just died. But do share the gospel and the Good News that Jesus came to save people (John 3:16). Pray for the right words and time and then speak the truth to your friend. Whether your friend is a believer or unbeliever, grieving deeply or seeming to process grief well, pray for your friend. God is the "God of all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3); we can share the comfort He has given us (2 Corinthians 1:3–5) as well as ask Him to comfort the hearts of those who are grieving.
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