Just Sit With Me: Ministry to the Grieving
What is grief? It’s normal yet complex — and at times, baffling and indescribable.
When ministering to grieving people, perhaps the best way to understand it is by asking them a different question: What is grief to you?
After my eldest sister died, I wrestled with bitterness. When I delivered a stillborn child, I was utterly confused.
Another sister died, and I became afraid. Following my father’s death, I struggled to understand. Upon learning my nephew had been murdered, I experienced a disorienting sense of outrage that was altogether new.
During 2020, I experienced some of these emotions all over again as I navigated the pandemic along with the rest of the world.
This is grief. It has many causes and can evoke diverse emotional responses.
We will all grieve at some point during our lives. However, the way each person processes a loss is as unique as his or her fingerprint.
No two people are the same. Thus, no one will grieve exactly like someone else — even when they’re suffering the same loss.
One person may cry all the time, while another sits quietly contemplating the loss with few or no tears.
Some bereaved people are vocal about what they’re feeling, posting about it on social media and talking with anyone who will listen. Others are more guarded and private, opening up about their emotions with just a few people they trust.
I have another sister who experienced each of our family’s losses with me, and we responded differently. For example, my sister visited Dad’s gravesite daily during the first year following his death. Meanwhile, I waited three years to return to his burial place.
We all move through grief in our own ways, and that’s OK. Understanding this makes it easier to give and receive grace during difficult times.
Regardless of what form grief takes, there are several things bereaved people need during their time of distress.
In the midst of multiple devastating losses, Job received little solace from the people around him. His friends pointed accusing fingers, suggesting Job had brought his sorrows upon himself. No wonder Job referred to them as “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2).
Nevertheless, Job’s friends got one thing right. According to Job 2:13, “They sat on the ground with [Job] for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
If Job’s friends had done nothing beyond this, they might have been a great source of comfort.
Our presence with grievers lets them know they are not alone. We can also pray with them, reminding them God is there — which means they are never alone.
The apostle Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). By sitting with those who are grieving, we can do just that. The simple act of being there is a way of entering their struggles.
Realizing this takes some pressure off. You don’t have to take away the sadness or come up with all the right words. Your presence speaks volumes.
A SAFE PLACE
When hurting people feel safe, they are more likely to share.
On the other hand, when they don’t feel comfortable talking, bereaved individuals may isolate themselves or put on a fake smile and try to blend in with the crowd. I know because I’ve done these things, pretending to be fine even while churning with anguish on the inside.
Psalm 23:1–2 describes the Lord as a Shepherd who tenderly guides His flock to green pastures and leads them beside quiet waters. This is an apt picture of a safe place.
We can provide moments of refreshing by listening, without judgment. For many who are walking through bereavement, telling their stories is a first step toward healing.
There is value in sharing our struggles in Christian community, whether we’re carrying each other’s burdens or confessing our sins to one another (Galatians 6:2; James 5:16).
Creating a safe place requires listening actively, attentively, and intentionally. We need the Holy Spirit to help us listen with our hearts — that is, with grace, empathy, and compassion.
Hear grief expressions without interjecting an opinion or trying to fix whatever problem the person is sharing.
Avoid telling your story during this time or making the conversation about you. Be a listener, not a talker.
Even in listening, allow space for both you and the grieving person to be still in God’s presence, knowing He is God (Psalm 46:1). He is the Healer, Comforter, and Friend who brings peace to troubled hearts.
PERMISSION TO GRIEVE
Assure bereaved people their tears are nothing to be ashamed of. Intense emotions are a normal part of the grieving process. In fact, these emotions are a reflection of our humanity and a reminder of our capacity for love.
As beings created in God’s image, we feel and express emotions just as He does. Jesus wept, and so can we.
John 11:33–35 says, “When Jesus saw [Mary of Bethany] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.”
Some churchgoers assume a stoic demeanor during difficulties is the Christian ideal. They may worry that grief gives them the appearance of having weak faith — this is not the case.
Grief is a normal human response, not a sign of spiritual deficiency. The reality is, bottling up or concealing emotions hinders many Christians from truly grieving and healing as they should.
Give people permission to grieve by acknowledging their losses, validating their feelings, and affirming their expressions of sorrow. Use phrases such as, “That’s so hard,” “That must really hurt,” or “That’s heartbreaking.”
Instead of posing probing questions, ask leading questions. Invite the bereaved to talk about their loved ones. Ask what they most loved about them and what memories stand out. Then listen — attentively and responsively — as long and as often as needed.
As someone who has experienced much grief, I have learned the pain never completely goes away. However, with God’s help and the support of friends who were willing simply to sit with me, I have managed to navigate each loss and find healing and hope on the other side. I know others can do the same.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of Influence magazine. Edited for style and audience. Used with permission.