When comforting your friends after a tragic loss, don’t tiptoe around it

I was a junior in college when the phone call came. My father tracked me down to my friend’s apartment, interrupting our dinner. In those pre-cell phone days, it was rare for parents to seek you out beyond the dorm room. Alarms were buzzing in my mind before my father spoke his first word.

“Becky, your brother had an accident,” my father began. “Forest hit a pier while he was water-skiing. He’s been hospitalized.”

“What?” I stammered. “Is he going to be OK?”

“We don’t know, honey. We are hopeful, but he hit his head hard and the brain is swelling. They are trying to relieve the pressure.”

I remember asking for details, more than once, as I tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Color faded from the room as the buzzing grew louder.

My 17-year-old brother was in a coma. Nine days later, he would die.

Death is difficult. Untimely death is tragic.

How do you comfort a friend who has experienced a tragic loss? Most of us can handle the initial responsibility. We go to them, offer our sympathy, take a dish of food, send flowers or make a charity donation.

But what do you do after a few days or weeks? Most of us run out of roadmap by then.

In the Pastor’s Perspective column, “Tiptoeing Around Tragedy,” my father used both our family’s personal journey and his 40 years in the ministry to offer the following Do’s and Don’ts:

Don’t try to have business as usual with your friend; that is, don’t ignore reality. The loss is real, so be real in your approach to it.

Do let the person talk about his loss. When he starts talking, let him talk. Ask strategic questions to help him keep talking. He will close the subject when he’s through. Don’t you try to close it.

Don’t dry his tears. Crying does not hurt; it releases hurt and brings healing.

Don’t give in to the temptation and tendency to change the subject.

Do, from time to time, over the weeks following the tragedy, say to your friend such statements as: “Just want you to know I’m thinking about you.” Or, “You are in my prayers.” Maybe say, “I’m hurting with you.” Your friend will-if he needs to-pick up on your offer and talk about his feelings.

Don’t (unless you’ve been through a similar, and I mean similar, experience) ever say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t, not unless you’ve have actually been there. Yet, somehow communicate your struggle to understand: “I don’t know how you feel, not really, but it must be terrible.” Such a sentence will open all sorts of doors for your friend.

There are many “do’s and don’ts” involved in relating to people in their grief. But there are two basic facts or guidelines to keep in mind:

One, grief, if properly processed, lasts at least six to twelve months. During that time, the hurt is fresh, like a wound. Healing and scar tissue begin to form after about a year.

Two, don’t tiptoe around the person’s tragedy. If you do, you become part of his problem. Be part of the solution. Face the loss with the person, talk about it with him. For his sake, don’t pretend nothing has happened. Be real and face reality with him.

With the recent deaths of teenagers in our community, I empathize with the families who are trying to piece back together life after loss. I have learned that yes, life goes on after tragic loss, but it is a different life. “Back to normal” isn’t a realistic objective.

Trust the grief process and be patient with your friends and family as they seek to support you.

Healing will come, I promise. Healing will come.

Becky Galli is a freelance writer and mother of four who resides in Phoenix. Her father, the late R.F. Smith Jr., was pastor emeritus of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington, W.Va. He also wrote, “Sit Down, God … I’m Angry” about coping with his son’s untimely death.