Posted by: riverchilde | September 10, 2014

Five Ways to Help Your Grieving Friend: A Ministry of Presence

Yesterday I sat with some other folks personally invested in the topic of suicide recovery. We talked about how difficult it is for people to know how to help those who are grieving from such a shocking loss. We can’t just rely upon clergy or professional therapists to provide support, I insisted. We must teach everyone how to perform the ministry of presence.

Today on my news feed, I discovered that Anna Wiston-Donaldson, whose elementary-age son drowned in a freak flood three years ago (Sept. 8, 2011), has begun that task in the most personal way possible: writing a book, Rare Bird, about her experience of looking grief in the face and turning the empty hole in her heart into a Holy Hole, as blogger Glennon Melton describes it. I ordered my copy immediately.

I “met” Anna through the Momastery blog, which introduced me to Anna’s blog, An Inch of Grey. While we have never spoken to one other, her blog speaks to me about the multiple facets of grief. Her experiences are both like and unlike mine. For example, she speaks of the “damned creek” that stole her son from her. I don’t think that way about the train tracks where Alex left this life. She moved away from their former house beside that creek; I’ve chosen to stay in the house by the train tracks, where the blowing whistle and clatter of wheels echo through the rooms every morning and all through the day, up to a dozen times a day.

Anna shares my interest in telling her story for the benefit of others and in fostering what I call a “ministry of presence” to those who are grieving or suffering. I wrote a blog posting called My Mary Magdalenes; she wrote a book with these five ways to help a grieving friend:

Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s
Five Ways to Help Your Grieving Friend

Show up.

Memorialize and Honor.



Don’t Give Up.

1) Show up. Go to her house. Go to the funeral. Mark your calendar for a few days or a week afterward to stop by with a latte and a hug. Do it again. Grief is isolating, while also being exhausting and overwhelming. Your friend will likely need you to initiate for a while, but if you remind yourself to “Just Show Up” physically and emotionally, you will help her heal.

2) Memorialize and honor. Honor your friend’s loved one by attending vigils, visitations, and any charity events held in his or her name. Support causes that are meaningful to the family. If you did know the loved one, write down your memories to give to your friend. If you didn’t, that’s okay too!  Let yourself learn about him or her through your friend. Keep your eyes and heart open for a meaningful way to honor him or her. A few women tied blue ribbons around trees and mailboxes in our neighborhood, and it spread throughout town as a way to memorialize our son. Small gifts such as a special piece of jewelry, a book, candle, or artwork, may give your friend something to hold onto even as her tangible connection to her loved one feels like it is slipping away.

3) Listen. Your quiet presence and silent hug mean MUCH MORE to your friend than any grand gesture. Supporting  a friend is scary because we are terrified of saying the wrong thing. Words are next to useless at a time like this, so give yourself a break. A simple “I’m so sorry” and a listening ear are enough. Your intention is pure, and your friend will be able to sense that. “Do you want to tell me what these past few days have been like?” might be a way to give her permission to open up if she wants to. But silence is okay.

4) Remember: Remember the birthday of the deceased, and the anniversary or the time of year of his or her death. Call, text, or send a card– “I’m thinking of you today as you miss your mom.” Or, make a note to reach out on a significant holiday such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Valentine’s Day. Depending on the situation, this could also be the first day of school, or the opening day of baseball season when the pain could be acute. Don’t worry that you will be reminding your friend of her loss. She is likely already thinking about it, and your small acknowledgment will let her know you are too. Find a way to bring up the loved one’s name in conversation. The more you do it, the easier it gets, “I watched the Yankees play last week and thought of Jack,” or “Your mom really loved summer, didn’t she?”  This helps your friend know that even though time has passed, you still remember.

5) Don’t give up: Your friendship may feel one sided for a while. You may be tempted to back off, give your friend space, or let her reach out to you once she knows what she needs. You may even feel a bit let down that she seems to be relating to others more than you these days. Perhaps she has formed bonds with others who have experienced a similar loss, and you are wondering what this means for your friendship. The key is to keep letting her know you care. Let go of expectations of how/if she will respond. Grief is extremely disorienting and lonely, and you can stave off some of that by being consistently present even if that is just through Facebook, texts, and (unreturned) phone messages.  Yes, your friend has changed due to her experience, but she still loves and needs you. And if you are willing to walk beside her in her grief, you will both be richer for it.

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