Most people don’t know what to say to the grieving. Most grieving don’t know how to talk about their grief. Mourning that comes out of time, during college-the days supposed to be the best of your life, can lead to profound loneliness.
And, I’m not just talking about the death of a family member or friend, maybe its the family relationship that was unspeakable, or the experience that stole what can never be physically restored, or a home lost due to an international move.
Not many know how to mourn among the old, so where does that leave the college student? Usually speechless. And angry. And searching for something to dull the pain. Surrounded by friends who do care, but may not have logged enough life to know quite how to come alongside their friend. It can be hard to know how to be a friend when you’re needed most.
I’m no grief expert, but I can share what I’ve learned along the road from a college student with few recognized losses in life to now, mid way through life having logged a few. I’ve experienced losses related to life lived overseas. A year and a half ago, my dad passed away of a brain tumor.
Entering back into U.S. college ministry, my heart weighs heavy for the many, many students I meet who are grieving and struggling to find a way through the grief.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind when walking alongside a friend through loss…
- Begin understanding your own losses. Maybe you haven’t lost someone to death, but have you lost a friend or family member to a severed relationship? to a different direction in life? to addiction? Those are losses to grieve and mourning brings compassion for other losses.
- Log time with your friend. Call them. Text them. Even when you don’t know what to say. Just say “I don’t know what to say”. It’s honest and it may be enough for the moment. Keep calling and texting even when it seems they don’t want to be your friend because they don’t call back. They’re grieving and it can be hard to take simple steps to maintain friendships during grief. Don’t take it personally and keep offering your friendship.
- Allow space for a range of emotions. Grieving isn’t just crying. It can be laughing over a memory or just doing something normal to remind yourself that life isn’t all about your loss. It’s not all sad. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes. Being a friend who is there means you are along for the ride, with all its ups and downs.
- Avoid explanations. Most of the time, we really don’t know what God’s purposes are in the timing of loss. When a friend of mine died right after graduation, a nurse rattled off a long list of false statements as we sat stunned out of words from the shocking news. The dead do not become angels. God probably did not take them because they were the prettiest. He does not need more angels in heaven because God does not need. As we sat bereaved in the hospital, my anger grew to overflowing. The best thing she could have given was silence. Statements and explanations make the speaker feel better, they have something to say. If you don’t know what to say, say that, and sit. You may feel inept and weak but that is ok. It’s a demonstration of selfless love. Presence is a profoundly comforting comfort.
- Educate yourself. Watch movies like P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, or Band of Brothers. Read memoirs written by the grieving. Do a word study in your Bible on mourning. Read slowly and repeatedly through Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died but before he was raised. Listen to Mary and Martha’s responses as though you were there. Notice Jesus’ responses.
- Pray for your friend and yourself. Most of the time when I pray for my grieving friends now, I pray that they will experience comfort from the Lord.
- Get help when its needed. If your friend is coping with grief in self-destructive ways, don’t just stand by. If they’re binge drinking, coping oddly well but not willing to talk much with anyone, displaying poor hygiene that is beyond normal, taking drugs, hooking up with others to avoid pain, missing an abnormal number of classes, or unable to sleep well consistently, they need more help walking through their grief. Approach them about talking with a counselor and help them set up and keep the appointment.
Sometimes I’ve felt there should be a class where I can learn how to be compassionate. Alas, I believe God grows a heart of compassion in us as we experience pain and come close to those in pain.