Three Camps: Understanding your grief support network
“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not. I hate if they do, and if they don't.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Grief is a complex issue to navigate. It's complicated for both the grieving and those who seek to support them. Since losing our son Ethan, several close friends have asked me about how to respond to to our hurt. "What is helpful? I wish I knew what to say. I can't imagine what you are going through. I don't even know where to begin."
First off, let me say that you are a good friend for even asking that question. Thank you.
I've been wanting to write something for those of us that are newly grieving; Perhaps listening in will shed some light on this complicated situation.
. . . . .
Three Camps: Understanding Your Grief Support Network
In the weeks since losing our son, I've noticed that there seem to be three different "camps". People tend to respond in one of three ways.
Camp #1: The Mr. (or Mrs.) Fix-its
This camp is filled with people that love you so much that they want to do whatever they can to take your pain away. They want to provide you with that perfect piece of advice; As humans, our advice is often imperfect, although I do believe that this camp has the purest of intentions.
"Don't cry. Your loved one is in heaven! We should rejoice!"
I am happy that my loved one is in heaven. My greatest pain was their greatest joy. I'm incredibly thankful for this promise. But I still miss them and it still hurts like crazy to be left behind.
"God must have needed them."
God is sovereign over the entire universe. He spoke this world into existence. He can calm the raging sea with his voice. Does he really "need" anything? What does he not already have?
"They were too beautiful for earth."
Are you saying that those on earth weren't beautiful enough for heaven? I'm confused.
"You're young. I know you'll have lots more children."
I'd never tell someone who had lost a best friend, "Don't worry, you'll make more friends." No one will replace that one friend that you bonded with. Nothing will replace the memory that you had with them. Please don't say this to someone. More children may bring joy in the future, but they don't replace the heartache of watching a beloved child die in your arms. I won't even get into the issue of my struggle with infertility and how long I waited for this child...
You may have heard these words from someone who loves you. You may have said them yourselves. (I, too, realized I had said things like this in the past.) Although these words are hurtful, realize that most people had the purest of intentions. People care for you and wanted to take the pain away. It is okay to gently educate your friends in Camp #1. You have permission to tell them. Take a deep breath and gently say, "I really appreciate you trying to console me and it means so much to me that you care. It can be so hard to know what to say and those words aren't really encouraging right now..." These people love you.
Camp #2: The Tiptoers
This camp is filled with people that love you so much that they want to protect you from any pain. The problem is, they can't. Pain has already entered your world.
They may tiptoe around you, as if you are a house of cards just waiting to crumble. They may be afraid to speak your loved ones name, for fear that you may fall apart. They may avoid eye contact with you when they see you coming. Or they may pretend as if your heartache does not exist because they do not want to make you feel uncomfortable. I was a member of this camp, before losing Ethan. I was so afraid of saying the right thing that I did not say anything at all. The tiptoers don't inflict pain, but they may make you feel somewhat like an awkward oddball when you just want to be treated like a normal person.
Like those in Camp #1, this group also loves you. They care for you and do not want to see you hurting. They'd glue your heart back together if they could.
Camp #3: Those that acknowledge the pain
I'm thankful to say that we know a lot of people in this camp. But I've talked to many hurting friends who have found this camp to be the smallest. These are the people that simply acknowledge the pain and offer their presence. They know how to lend a listening ear, without having to fix the situation. They make themselves available, without prying for information. They may even provide you with advice, encouragement, or a scripture. But the key is that they acknowledge the pain.
"I'm so sorry."
"I'm praying for you."
"You were on my heart today."
"I'm crying with you."
"This stinks. I wish I knew what to say."
"How are you doing?", without expectation of a detailed response, but being prepared if they want to give you one
Although these camps are all different, I've noticed a common thread that binds them all together. People in each of these camps love you. It breaks their heart to see you hurting. They have the very best of intentions.
. . . . .
So back to your question; "What do I say? I don't even know where to begin."
Every heartache is different and I cannot speak for everyone. But for me, I have found that the best way to be there for a friend is to simply acknowledge their pain. Allow them to hurt. Oh yes, I know it breaks your heart to watch them hurt. I know you would fix it if you could. But you can't. Only God can mend their broken heart. For now, simply love them and acknowledge their pain. Anything you say after that is okay. Even advice.