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A friend recently told me of a pair of birds that had built their nest in a wreath on her door. No sooner had their babies hatched than a local cat had pounced upon the hatchlings, leaving none. We can all understand her heartsick feeling. But then, within seconds, her porch filled with what seemed like a hundred other birds, chirping and gathering around the grieving parents. “It was as if they were offering their support,” she said. And her sorrow turned to gratitude that, even in nature, we find empathy and love.
It’s a great lesson for all of us that we need to rally when someone is hurting. And, like the community of birds, we must never assume there are plenty of others already helping. To pull back, even if the reason is awkwardness or not knowing what to say, is the worst choice. Being present matters. Simply expressing sorrow matters.
It’s different for each person who suffers loss, but what all of us need when life takes away those we love, is knowing there are friends who care, who will listen, who will hold us up when we feel like collapsing.
I’ve walked this road my entire life, losing loved ones early and seemingly continuously. And this is what I’ve learned:
First, when you need to show sympathy, make time. Be there. Express love and caring. Don’t ask nosy questions, don’t tell your own similar story, just make it about the person who needs comfort. Don’t make the mourner feel they must now summon the strength to comfort you; make it about them. And, if you’re the one grieving, you can choose when and how many people you can handle. Don’t feel you have to shelve your emotions so others can crowd in, if you feel like you need solitude.
Second, if you’re the bereaved, get a Priesthood Blessing. This can offer surprising comfort, understanding, direction, and peace. Often nonmembers appreciate this opportunity, as well. “Can’t hurt, might help,” one person told me.
Third, let the grieving person express their feelings—any feelings. Searing loss, evaporated dreams, anger, self-pity, blame, fear, depression, doubts, confusion, guilt. Feelings swallowed are feelings that can cause harm. Just let them vent without judging or trying to solve everything right now. Don’t correct them or make them feel they’re wrong; just listen and love.
This ability to listen without jumping in is one of the greatest gifts you can offer. It lets the sorrowing person know they are safe with you. They have found someone who genuinely cares. And they can then begin the healing process. Months later they may have moved through some of those emotions. But how grateful they will be that they were free to express them at that time, and know that your love would be a constant.
Next, allow grief the time it takes. I don’t think you really ever “get over” such a loss, but you do learn to live with it, to find purpose and joy again. However, this takes a different amount of time for each situation. You can’t make a timetable and expect to feel a certain way at the six-month mark, or the year-mark or whatever. Don’t hold others to any standard of “You should be dating again by now,” or “You seem to be crying too much.” Just let them be, and let them cope the way they feel is best for them. Some people throw themselves into a flurry of activity, others need to pull back in order to process events. There is no one right or wrong way, and your way will be unique to you.
Both the bereaved and the friends trying to help, need to understand that grieving doesn’t mean you’ve lost your testimony, or that you doubt Eternal Life. Sorrowing and crying are part of the expression of missing someone. It’s normal. No one need apologize for the aching chasm they feel. Jesus wept when he saw those he loved, crying over the death of Lazarus. Yes, knowing that we will live again is a huge comfort. But it doesn’t mean we cannot or should not grieve.
Understand that there will be moments of calm, and then sudden, piercing jabs of sorrow that catch you by surprise. Your eyes may well with tears in the most unlikely of places. It’s okay. It’s natural. Events, songs, even smells can trigger memories.
Don’t make major decisions right away. Sometimes a loss is more than we can manage and still think clearly. Even though we think we’re okay, we’re not. So be patient and hold off on huge decisions.
If you’re the grieving person, it will help if you can—when you’re ready—think of a way to honor the memory of the loved one. This can mean advocacy for a charity or cause, talking with others about them, or simply remembering them fondly. Whenever I garden I feel it’s a tribute to my father, who died when I was in my twenties. It’s a way to wink and smile, and know he’d be proud of my efforts. I had an older sister who died when I was twelve. I think of her every time I hear Clair de Lune because she was such a talented pianist. I know of parents who have gotten involved with medical and social foundations that help them find purpose again after losing a child.
As someone trying to offer comfort, don’t be afraid to say you miss the loved one, even months or years later. Many of us shy away from it, afraid to bring it up and open wounds. But for the one who lost somebody, this leaves a void, and a feeling that nobody cares or remembers. Instead, it’s wonderful to know that our loved ones mattered in other people’s lives as well. We want to know you haven’t forgotten them.
Get help. If you need counseling, a support group, or medication, by all means get it. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re proactive. You’re tackling this intelligently.
Be aware that there are other losses that can devastate someone. Miscarriage, divorce, losing a job or a home, suffering a health setback, a financial reversal, losing a pet, feeling betrayed by a friend, retirement, feeling unsafe—all of these can catapult a person into grief. We need to rally in each case, and offer specific support to those enduring these challenges as well.
Last, draw close to God. He, more than anyone, can comfort exactly the way you need comforting. Let Him. Seek Him. Allow His love to fill your chest, to wipe your tears, to give you hope again. Pause to listen when you pray. Pause to listen when you study scriptures. Express gratitude for the plan. Or, if you’re not even sure about the Plan of Salvation, tell Him. Ask for help. Ask for faith. You do not have to walk this road alone. Ask Him to buoy you up, to hold you tight. He will. He loves you and wants to help you through all the trials of mortality, this being one of the most difficult.
And, if he can imbue little birds with the kind of caring my friend observed, surely he has placed even greater love within our hearts. Let’s use it to help one another along.
Hilton’s newest work, A Little Christmas Prayer, is destined to become a Christmas classic. This tale, for any reader of any faith, teaches us all the magic of gratitude. All her books and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.