I was 21 on the morning my grandfather called to tell me my brother had died in a car accident, my brother Bobby who was 20 and almost my twin, my best friend, the best man in my wedding, the one I skipped school with to drive to the beach on perfect eighty degree days, windows down, radio up, Slurpees in our hands.
Papa had called earlier to say Bobby hadn’t made it home from college yet, that he’d driven all night, checked in every few hours, but now he wasn’t answering calls. This time Papa said, “Jennifer, Bobby’s dead,” and I dropped the phone, crumpling into my white bed sheets.
I’d fly to Florida that day in a thunderstorm, lightning illuminating a sea of dark grey clouds. I’d stand with my parents beside a closed casket, hugging five hundred crying friends, family members, and total strangers. I’d stand beside my brother’s name on marble as bagpipes played Amazing Grace, and his friends pushed his coffin-ed body into a mausoleum wall. I’d fly back home and sleep until noon and eat whole bags of Reese’s cups, avoiding people and productivity, feeling scared and abandoned and lost.
This would be one of the hardest things I’d ever have to bear.
It was weird to be 21 and grieving a loss like this, a big loss, a too-early loss, a loss like an amputation. It felt weird, of course, to be without someone I’d assumed I’d always have, to be living life in the color-sucking shade of sadness and anger and exhaustion, but it also was, statistically speaking, weird. I was the only one of my friends to have experienced loss like this. They looked at me like I was sick and contagious or like I was fragile, like they might accidently break me. I wondered if they were right. I thought maybe they were.
I was wrong.
It’s been sixteen years since that early morning phone call, and in those sixteen years I’ve learned a few things about grief, one of the most important being this: Grief is not weakness.
Take a stroll through scripture and you’ll find all kinds of wise, strong people grieving, people who loved God, even people who believed in the coming resurrection. Luke writes in the book of Acts about the death of Stephen, a martyr for the cause of Christ: “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” Did they not know Stephen was with God? They definitely did. And still.
It’s not just godly people mourning either; Jesus Himself famously mourns at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Sometimes I imagine church folk watching Jesus cry and wonder what they’d say. They’d certainly put an arm around his shoulder or pat his hand. Maybe they’d say something like, “Now Jesus, you know Lazarus is in a better place” or “Jesus, sometimes we can’t understand it, but God has a plan.” Or my personal favorite: “Hun, God just needed another angel.”
Watching Jesus grieve reminds me that knowing God’s plan or having hope in Heaven doesn’t undo the need to grieve. You can believe all the right things and still weep at a friend’s grave.
In Romans, the apostle Paul encourages the Roman Christians to “mourn with those who mourn.” He can say that, command it even, because grief isn’t a problem to be fixed or a disease to be healed. It’s holy work accomplishing something in us and in the people who partner with us to carry it.
It’s important for the grieving to know that grief can be healthy. But it’s also important for the people around the grieving to know it too. Grievers need people brave enough to step into their pain, to experience it with them, and to encourage them to persevere.
According to God, the right response to grief is partnership.
How do we partner in grief? So glad you asked. Here are six practical ways to “mourn with those who mourn”:
1. Show up.
What grieving people appreciate, more than just about anything else, is the gift of presence. You don’t have to say something super wise. Just be there. Be there at the house to put the casseroles in the fridge and screen telephone calls. Be there at the visitation with a bottle of water. Be there at the funeral; sign the book. Be there a week after the funeral to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Be there in the parking lot to walk into the church building with them for the first time post-loss. Be there. Be there. Be there.
When my brother died, I’d been out of college for six months and hadn’t seen my college best friend in about that long. The day he died she called to tell me she was coming, flying from Tennessee to Florida. I don’t actually remember anything she said during the three or four days she stayed with me in my parents’ house. But I do remember that she drove with me to the visitation, that she sat in a corner of the room where I could see her, that she smiled kindly every time I looked her way, and that she offered me water. I’ll never forget how it felt to know she was there and to know she was there for me.
2. Don’t try to fix it.
Like we saw earlier, Paul tells us to mourn with those who mourn, NOT to cheer up those who mourn. Mourning with those who mourn means embracing their sadness or anger, not running from it or trying to make it go away. Your grieving friend is not your project. You don’t need to make her happy or get her out of the house or convince her to exercise, not for a while anyway. Your job at first is just to be sad alongside her. Cry together. Listen while she lists the things she’ll miss about the person who’s died. Play some sad music. Eat cake.
The best gift I received early in my grief was a DVD box set of the last two seasons of the TV show Gilmore Girls. My husband (we married when I was 19), watched every episode on the couch beside me while I cried.
3. Be helpful.
Grieving people have to do all the things regular people do. They have to cook meals and clean their houses and figure out what to do about that test in their sociology class. They also have to do other things like pick out coffins and plan the funeral and try not to cry all day. If you really want to help a person who’s grieving, lighten their load. Pick their kids up and take them to school in the morning. Make food and put it in their freezer. Buy them a handful of pizza gift cards. Shop for things like paper plates and plastic utensils and toilet paper–stuff they’ll need but won’t remember to shop for.
My brother died in December and when I flew to Florida I suspected I wouldn’t be back home before Christmas. My friend Ron asked if he could take care of mailing our Christmas presents to Florida. I never would have thought of it. But because of Ron we had presents to open on Christmas morning, and that small joy made the pain a little easier to bear.
Grief can complicate prayer. People who are grieving still love God, but we might not like Him for a little while. Or maybe we don’t totally trust Him.
Because someone grieving can’t always bring themselves to pray, friends need you to pray on their behalf. Pray for comfort and peace. Pray for joy. Pray for eyes to see God even in the dark.
My friend Allie said to me once, “In the times when I’m weak and can’t get to God’s throne myself, it’s a great gift to be carried there by my friends.”
5. Give grace.
Grieving people are assaulted by emotions and moods. They’ll be short with you. They’ll ignore your texts. They’ll accuse you of not caring about them. They’ll be a downer at dinner. They’ll let you down. And, in all of it, they desperately need grace. They need room to mess up without worrying about falling behind or falling out of favor. They need you to keep texting them, to keep inviting them to dinner, to keep being kind. And they’d be incredibly grateful if you’d just go ahead and forget about that rant they went on last night after Bible study.
6. Be alive.
After my brother died it seemed like everyone around me started whispering. I’d hear laughter in a room only to hear it fade when I walked in. People tiptoed around me, afraid of jostling me, afraid to be too loud or too happy or too excited. In that tiptoeing they unintentionally avoided all the best parts of life. Just when I most needed a good laugh, everyone seemed determined to protect me from one.
Yes, we should mourn with those who mourn, but mourning doesn’t preclude joy and passion and purpose. Don’t feel like you always need to be a muted version of yourself when you’re with a grieving friend. Tell funny stories. Be excited about good news. Talk about your new big project. Invite your friend to go shopping for a new pair of boots. Plan a trip. Praise God freely and with joy. Be fully alive.
Just because your friend is experiencing darkness doesn’t mean you need to dial back your light. In fact, it’s the light in you they most need.
I had friends who didn’t know how to handle my grief. But I also had friends who knew exactly what to do, friends who committed to carrying my load, partnering in grief, and mourning with me. Friends who were certain grief could be holy, holier endured together.
My prayer for you is that God would bring you partners in grief and that God would make you partners in grief, and that in that partnership you’d be shaped, blessed, and loved.
JL Gerhardt is an author and storytelling minister living just outside Austin, TX. Her books include Swallowed Up: A Story About How My Brother Died. And I Didn’t. and Think Good: How To Get Rid of Anxiety, Guilt, Despair, and the Like to Finally Find Peace of Mind.