I feel like all I’ve done is cry since the tornadoes tore through central Arkansas and took away many beloved lives. A friend and former co-worker Rob Tittle was one of those taken, along with two of his daughters, and now his wife Kerry has just been plummeted into the world of grief with seven children left to care for as a single mom and nothing in this world but a concrete slab.
This terrible tragedy has made me reflect on how I felt three-and-a-half years ago when my own husband was killed instantly in a car accident. The range of emotions is as broad as the light spectrum. There were depths of darkness that I was scared to find within me, and also strength of hope and faith that stood the greatest spiritual adversity I have ever or will ever face, thanks only to the grace and mercy of God.
I could not have survived those days without the Body of Christ coming to my side. I told many people that I felt carried during that time. I could almost feel the prayers. God was extending an extra measure of grace through His people, and the encouragement I received gave me strength to continue when I was so too weak to stand on my own.
My new husband, Robbie, was also widowed when his first wife died of cancer two years ago, and we’ve talked about the ways people reached out to us, piercing the darkness and bringing the light of Christ when it was most needed.
We’ve seen the way God’s people have once again come to the aid of victims of this tornado, and the love and support I’ve seen moves me to tears. In the midst of grief, help is priceless, and Robbie and I want to encourage each of you to offer your service as much as you can.
We know there are some who are at a loss about what to do or may be intimidated to reach out because they aren’t sure about how to interact with someone who has experienced a death like this, so we sat down and put together some suggestions that might help you have confidence on how to minister to someone who is grieving.
1. Don’t tell a grieving person how much God loves her. Show her.
Everyone grieves differently, but from what I’ve seen, the first few weeks are either filled with fortified faith in God’s purposes and a peace that surpasses understanding, or those weeks are filled with questions and anger. Most of the time, you won’t know which way your friend’s heart leans, especially if she isn’t willing to expose how she really feels.
If your friend falls into the category of amazing faith, she already knows God loves her, and if your friend is angry at God, the last thing you want to do is mention His love. In this case, leave the spiritual issues of the grieving heart for God to work through. That part just takes time.
You really don’t have to tell a survivor how much God loves her. A better way to prove God’s love is to show her. More than your spiritual guidance, she needs your help, and she will need your help for a long time. James 2:15-16 says it best, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “’Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Your friend needs your arms wrapped around her. She needs babysitting. She needs meals. She needs clothes and personal effects and money. She needs anything you would need.
The month after David died, people from all walks of life came to help me. In just days, the yard was mowed, bushes and trees pruned, swings hung for the kids, sandbox and other toys provided, meals every single day for weeks, money donated for the kids’ college funds (they were just babies!), a brand new deep freezer, cabinets and pantry literally filled with food, and on and on … I was overwhelmed with the kindness and generosity of the Body of Christ!
That was the kind of love that still brings me to tears even today. No one ever had to tell me that God would provide all my needs—I saw it with my own eyes! He did it through His people. And that was something that even fear and hurt and sorrow couldn’t deny.
2. Listen to her heart.
During the first few weeks of grief, I had some well-meaning visitors try to keep me from talking about my losses. They tried to change the subject or get my mind off of it. I wasn’t offended because I knew their intentions were good, but their attempts were completely useless. There was no way to get my mind off of it. I was compelled to talk about it; it was almost therapeutic and helped me process everything. I wanted people to know just how great my loss was.
Robbie found that a lot of people would avoid the subject all together around him. But that kept him from feeling the freedom to grieve. The avoidance of Kari’s death was more awkward than the acceptance and acknowledgement of it.
I remember one day that my aunt Kay came to visit. She was working hard to hold back the tears. I started talking about David and how I missed him, and she couldn’t help but burst into uncontrollable crying. She apologized because she didn’t want to be sad around me, but what she didn’t realize was her shared sorrow was exactly what I needed. The old saying is true: “Misery loves company.” It felt good knowing someone understood the pain. The Bible encourages this kind of empathy saying, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
3. Share stories of encouragement.
The first few days of grieving are bittersweet because the survivors get to remember all the wonderful characteristics and qualities about the deceased. There are pictures and memories and stories, and it feels good to see them again and talk about how wonderful they were.
The best gifts that people gave me were stories about my late husband that I didn’t know about—the funny things he said or ways he impacted their lives. I remember the morning after his death, I had a moment of quiet, and I asked God, “I know you don’t owe me an explanation. You are justified in whatever you do. But it would help me get through it all if you would just tell me why.”
God sent me people who would tell me stories about how David’s untimely death made them appreciate their spouses more, encouraged them to be better dads, helped them realize how short life is, and on and on. Three years later, I was still getting stories of how David’s death changed people’s lives for the better. God showed me abundantly how my suffering had been used for good, and it made my grieving no less painful, but purposeful, which made it easier to bear.
So write the letters, send emails, write FB messages. You won’t get a response for each one. But know that those words are bringing healing. Tell her how much her faith encourages you. Tell her that you share her sorrow, and say it with passion. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Use your words to bring life into a person who feels like she’s just walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
4. Instead of saying, “I’ll pray for you.” Pray for them. Before you leave.
We all have intentions to pray for something important, don’t we? But life gets in the way, and we often don’t get around to it, even with the best intentions. When you visit a grieving friend, don’t wait. If you wish to pray, do it before you leave the house. James 5:16 says, “… Pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
This was an important part of the spiritual support for Robbie. Many people said they were praying for him, but he longed to hear those prayers with his own ears, to hear the emotions and the petitions on his behalf, and when those few would actually voice the prayers in his presence, the love of God washed over Him.
There was a time when the only thing I had the strength to pray was the children’s prayer each night when I put my kids to bed, “Now I lay me down to sleep …” I felt abandoned by God for a time, and I was afraid of his wrath, so I would pray with all my heart, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul should take.” At that time, I needed people praying on my behalf because I just couldn’t do it on my own.
5. Don’t stop.
A person who is grieving will need your help for a very long time, probably several years. Depending on the circumstances, some will have greater needs than others. The physical needs may settle out in a year or so, but there are also spiritual needs, and social needs that require your help.
Robbie was an able-bodied man with a teenager and a grown son, so his physical needs didn’t last very long. But the loneliness was a very difficult battle for him that lasted years. The two boys were old enough to spend more time with their friends, and Robbie’s best friends lived three hours away. He was very lonely being without his 22-year companion, the women he had loved since high school.
In my case, however, I was widowed with two babies. By God’s grace, David had provided for me monetarily in case of his death, but I had physical needs that went on for years. What I needed most was for someone to change the light bulbs, open tight jar lids, carry heavy boxes, or mow the grass.
I was amazed by the people who were thoughtful enough to keep checking on me. When the crowds were gone and the shock of the accident had worn off for most people, there were those few who still kept asking me if I needed anything. Three close girl friends in particular kept me afloat with activities and companionship. And a kind male friend took my son with him from time to time to the Home Depot for building workshops for kids so that my son would have a male mentor in his life.
Everyone grieves so differently it’s hard to write an article about what you should or shouldn’t do. But one thing is certain, those who have experienced such a great loss, need you. I’ve heard from many widows that they felt they lost all their friends when their husband died. Either people felt too awkward and avoided the whole emotional mess, or the newly single was abandoned in favor of other married couples. Please don’t stop ministering to those who grieve. James 1:27 tells us, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The path of sorrow is a lonely road, and those who travel it covet companionship. Robbie and I will forever be grateful for those who endured that long dreaded road, each and every mile.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Sabrina McDonald