Hospitality Hints is a monthly feature on our blog with some helpful hints for being hospitable in everyday life. Our hints may involve inviting people over, but not always! Most of the time, they will be about having a posture of hospitality—welcoming others into our lives.
Almost exactly a year ago, unspeakable tragedy rocked the world of one of my closest friends. As I sat in a memorial service on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I remember looking toward my friend and her grieving family and thinking, helplessly and hopelessly, “What now?”
As I’ve walked with my sweet friend (and, at times, watched her walk alone) through the last 12 months, I’ve learned that grief takes many forms, depending on the person and situation and day and hour and moment. There is no cure-all or band-aid or Grief for Dummies workbook. But there are a few consistent truths about grief that can help you show hospitality to those you know walking through the process.
1. Know your place and role.
To walk alongside a grieving friend is a privilege. Grief is a sacred place, and if your friend is willing to let you into her pain, consider it an honor and treat it as such. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum are lots of people who may be left out of the grieving process. Sometimes, no matter how much you care, your grieving friend might not have place in her heart to let everyone in.
You may desperately want to be there for your friend, but sometimes the best thing you can do is love from a distance and give your friend space. You can ensure they know you’re available for anything they need, but if the answer is “no” or “not right now,” that’s okay.
If you find yourself suddenly distanced from a friend you once held dear, remember:
2. Grief belongs to the griever.
Perhaps the most obvious yet most difficult truth of coming alongside grieving friends is this: it is not about you. I once heard somebody say this and thought, “Of course not! Why would anyone think it was? How selfish!” And then, a month after that sunny Sunday last September, I found myself sitting on my couch sobbing, feeling personally attacked by my grieving friend’s silence.
It was then that the words came back to me, and I was forced to come face-to-face with my selfishness.
What was happening was this: I looked at the situation from my limited outside perspective and thought, “If this were me, I’d want ___.” So I took that assumption, slapped my imaginary feelings on my friend’s very real situation, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t helping. I didn’t take time to understand what she really needed. I once asked, “What can I do to help you?” to which she responded with a shrug, “There is nothing you can do.” The biggest mistake I made was not believing her.
Your friends’ needs might be different. My friend needed space. But because grief belongs to the griever, everyone grieves differently. No matter how well you think you know a person, asking, “What can I do to help you?” is always the best policy.
Please also note that this question is different from the commonly expressed sentiment, “I’m here if you need anything.” Asking a question makes the griever assess her needs, something she might not be actively doing in her upside-down state of mind.
And the best response to the question? Respect the answer. Then…
3. Follow up.
While being careful not to bombard, following up is of utmost importance. After the relatives leave and routines return to normal, your friend is still trying to navigate through the surreal, fog-like state that is day-to-day life in the wake of grief. Once the dust has settled, it’s another good time to ask, “What can I do to help you?” But, again, respect whatever her answer may be.
If she wants to be alone, offer to babysit so she can get out of the house. If she says she’s overwhelmed with daily life, ask if you can run errands, clean her house, or pay bills. If she wants to be distracted, watch a funny movie together. And if she wants to talk, remember:
4. Listen more than you speak.
If your friend does invite you into the sacred space of their grief, always listen more than you speak. This is a good rule for life in general, but especially in grief. Even if you’ve been through something similar, remember #2 and refrain from placing your emotions on her situation. And even though they’re tempting and seem like they might be helpful, avoid clichés.
Clichés include, but aren’t limited to:
This was God’s will.
At least you have other children.
Be thankful he didn’t suffer.
Time heals all wounds.
While there is truth behind each of these statements and the griever likely understands the sentiment you’re trying to convey, these words simply aren’t helpful. Rather than respecting the grieving process, statements like these ignore legitimate emotions and attempt to replace them with happy thoughts.
As author and researcher Brené Brown points out, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” Margaret Feinberg suggests this connection can be made by saying “7 magic words“: I’m thinking of you and praying for you.
And then, with everything you have…
Be a prayer warrior for your friend. No matter how much you are able to help your friend though a difficult time, God is the healer and binder of wounds. He draws near to the brokenhearted in ways we’ll never be able to. He is the creator and lover of souls. Practical help, listening empathetically, and respecting needs are all important and should not be disregarded, but prayer will change hearts in ways that our actions can’t. Because hallelujah, we have a God who hears, listens, and responds.
What about you? Do you have any hints for showing hospitality to grieving friends? In a time of grief, have you experienced hospitality in a profound way? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Heather Warfield, the Lifeway Women Marketing Coordinator, is an optimist, coffee lover, and guacamole enthusiast from Michigan who currently plants her feet in the sweet, sweet south. Her favorite things include, but are not limited to: lakes, trees, sunshine, good talks, fair trade chocolate, new experiences, and people who think she’s funny.