"How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?"
By Rod J.K. Wilson
CBN.com When we comprehend the power of loss and the grief that goes with it,
we will be able to help others frame the experience they are going through.
The individual in your small group who has just lost a job, the woman
who just went through a divorce, the couple struggling with infertility,
the family who just went bankrupt, are all in situations that may raise
grief responses. In some cases they will be aware that they are more tired,
more removed from people, unmotivated or forgetful, but they will not
be labeling it as grief in response to loss. In these kinds of situations, I
have found that the question, “This seems like a death, doesn’t it?” often
brings tears to the surface as the person gets in touch with the depth of
their loss. This kind of understanding will help the person move through
the stages of grief.
Recognize that different stages bring different opportunities.
When our responses are based on the foundation of care and understanding,
we can reach out to people and be of help.
When people are
• Be there. There is nothing more valuable than someone by your
side when you are struggling with the shock of loss. You cannot
minimize the significance of your physical presence when someone
is going through bereavement.
• Avoid giving advice. Shock, by definition, implies disorientation
and lack of direction. Even if your advice is good, it will not be ap-
propriate at this stage. Recognize that our tendency to advise comes
not from our desire to reach out to the person going through grief,
but from our own need to do something in the midst of a situation
that seems so much out of our control.
• Offer practical help. There are many practical things (e.g., meals
prepared, errands run, driving people to appointments, insurance
and business arrangements, phone calls, etc.) that need to be done
when a loss occurs. This is especially true within the first week after
a death. There are a vast number of areas that need attention and
concentration, and the person going through grief will benefit from
When people are coping with reality:
• Be a good listener. One of the things that happens when people are
experiencing grief is that they will tell you the same story over and
over again. Not only will there be details about the death itself, but
also stories about their life with the person. Listen each time as if
it was the first time.
• Be patient. Grief is emotionally disruptive and it makes most of
us say and do irrational things. It is easy to tire of people who are
irrational, but remember that your character is best revealed in
• Avoid moralizing. When people are coping with the details of their
story, they do not want to hear the moral of the story. This is not to
discount the accuracy or validity of the moral or the spiritual lesson
you may see in the situation, but rather to recognize the importance
When people are in reaction:
• Recognize that they are filled with varied feelings. People will work
through their grief more effectively if they do not just experience
emotions but also express them.
• Avoid judging their feelings. One of the best ways to shut down
the expression of feeling is to assess it. This is particularly true with
anger, one of the emotions that seems to be negated most often.
Allow people the freedom to simply experience the vast range of
feelings that are a natural part of grief.
• Help the grieving person examine what they are feeling. Good interactionwill allow the grieving person to understand what they
are experiencing. Because their feelings are all over the map, careful
listening and processing will bring clarity. Allow people the
opportunity to name the emotions they are feeling, to talk about
them and unpack them without any sense that they are wrong and
When people are moving toward recovery:
• Encourage them. This stage, done well, will allow them to move into
the rest of their lives in a healthier manner. Encouragement in this
stage does not deny what has happened or ignore the significance
of the loss, but it helps the person to see the present in light of the
• Aid them with decision-making. People need help when they are
reorienting their lives. They will be making important decisions
about where to live, what relationships to be involved in, what lifestyle
they wish to choose, etc.
• Address their guilt. Many individuals feel they are doing something
wrong when they start moving on with their lives. Somehow it feels
disrespectful to “leave the deceased behind” and embrace the future.
Appropriate reassurance can be helpful in this stage.
Be there at various points in the process.
When people experience a loss, the natural tendency is to be there
when the loss actually occurs. When someone is fired, it is easy to have
them over for supper the next week. When someone dies, it is obvious
that going to the funeral home is the appropriate thing to do. When
your teenage daughter loses a volleyball tournament, it can help to talk
to her that night. While these are appropriate responses, it ignores the
reality that losses do not stop after they have happened.
It has been over twenty years since my wife, Bev, and I received our
infertility diagnosis. At that stage the sense of loss was profound and we
moved back and forth between shock and reality. Over those twenty
years we have experienced the loss in different ways. Now that we are in
our fifties and biology is going to close the door completely, the sense
of loss is more final and complete. People who are sensitive to issues of
grief around infertility would be very valuable to us in our own processing
of the loss. Our loss did not end twenty years ago. In many ways it
only began then.
The same is true for death. Funerals are so poorly timed in terms
of loss. Very few grieving friends and family are out of the shock stage
by the time the funeral arrives. And yet our words of comfort at the
funeral home and in funeral homilies often indicate that the survivors
are in the recovery stage, ready to get on with their lives. Well-meaning
visitors will look at the faces and demeanor of the family and conclude,
“She is doing well.” Nothing could be further from the truth. She has
had so many people around her since her husband died that she has no
idea how she feels.
These realities emphasize the importance of being there during the
whole process of loss. Weeks, months, and years after losses, speak to the
person about it, drop them a note, or make a call. The fear that raising
the loss with the person will upset them is a misplaced fear. In the first
place, “upset” is not bad; and in most cases, people will be glad to know
that you are remembering them. This is particularly true at special events.
If my friend John’s two children get married, there will be happiness at
the wedding but also a sense of loss. Most children and wives assume
that Dad will be there when the children are married. Undoubtedly,
John will be missed.
I have found that this basic practice is often ignored because “I didn’t
want to bother you” or “I knew others would be calling you” or “I’m sure
you have had a lot of people connecting with you.” It is better to connect
and demonstrate care at various points after the initial loss than speculate
about what others are doing.
Rod J. K. Wilson is the author of How Do I Help a Hurting Friend? (Baker Books, 2006) from which this article is excerpted. Dr. Wilson is the president and professor of counseling and psychology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Along with his professional counseling and consulting work, he has spent his career in academia in both teaching and administrative posts and in pastoral ministry. He and his wife, Bev, live in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Used with permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
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