Companions of the grieving

Grief causes myriad responses, and yet there are common threads. Many still talk about the stages of grief, including denial, bargaining and depression. Others refer to grief as having a set of tasks, such as accepting the reality of the loss.

One thing that’s clear is that death causes a cascade of emotion. Shock. Anger. Heartache — real pain we feel in our chests. We mourn when we lose people we love.

When encountering someone in mourning, many of us instinctively want to help. Yet lately I’ve been wondering if some of our well-worn traditions for responding to those going through grief are less helpful than we intend them to be.

In ministering to those who are grieving, as well as in my own experiences, I have observed some patterns in community response to those who mourn. I’ve also noticed relief from people who have experienced a loss when those accompanying them offer some reactions differing from the usual ones.

We search for words of comfort, believing that there are the right ones if only we knew them. Yet presence is a greater gift in many ways. Wrapping one’s arms around a person who is weeping, holding someone’s hand, listening to what the person wants to share (not plying him or her with questions) or sitting in silence can powerfully indicate care for a person at a time when he or she may feel completely alone.

While we can find real comfort in our faith, it is not the time for emphasizing particular theological perspectives on why we suffer. Preaching one’s answers to a person stunned by loss can be confusing or hurtful.

People reeling from grief often ask big questions and sometimes feel angry with God. I’ve found that often a loving response is to simply be a companion willing to stay with the mourning person in the midst of the pain from which such questions arise. That companion need not become anxious or give answers, but rather can acknowledge with the Apostle Paul that “now we see through a glass, darkly.”

As a practical response, sharing meals with mourners, who often have no time or will to cook, is a wonderful act of care. Yet I have also seen households suffering loss be overwhelmed with baked goods and other rich foods, giving them away to other homes becomes one more task.

Also important to remember is that people in the midst of grief can lose their appetites or forget to eat. One way to respond to this can be to take a healthful meal to the person or family and, if possible, serve it to them. They may be more likely to eat if food is right in front of them. It can be counterintuitive to offer to sit down to eat with the person, but especially in the first few weeks, mourners may need to have company in order to sit down and have a meal.

Taking care of other tasks can also be a service, yet some people who are mourning appreciate having work to take their minds off the loss. The key can be to gently explore which tasks are creating anxiety for the person, and which may be providing a needed distraction.

When we suffer loss, we hope to be reminded of what we can count on in this world. The care we show for those who mourn is among the most powerful ways we can be Christian community for each other. It is a way we reflect God’s love in a broken world.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a master of divinity student at the University of Chicago.