What should you do if you find out a friend is grieving, diagnosed with a serious illness, or suffering through some other trial? You want to help them somehow, but you’re not sure what would be helpful, and you don’t want to say or do something that ends up making them feel worse.
We talked with some people who have been through such trials to learn what they found to be helpful, and what ended up being unhelpful despite their friends’ good intentions. Here is what you should (and shouldn’t) do when responding to someone in crisis.
What You Should Do
- Show up. Or, at least, reach out and offer to show up. Your mere presence can be helpful. When Job was dealing with grief, loss, and illness, his friends came “to show him sympathy and comfort him.” They spent seven days just sitting and mourning with him, without saying anything (Job 2:11-13). Of course, things went famously wrong when they finally spoke up and offered a lot of unhelpful, unsolicited advice. But if you are slow to speak, and instead quick to show up and listen (James 1:19), your presence can provide comfort.
- Include them. If you would have invited them to join you for church, or dinner, or a fun night out before they experienced this trial, then continue to do so now. Don’t just assume that they want to be alone right now; let them make that decision for themselves. Loneliness and isolation are big problems for people who have suffered loss, and you want to encourage them to stay connected to others in community.
- Point to truth. Instead of offering up your own advice or opinions (like Job’s friends did), turn to what God’s Word has to say. And if your friends, in their suffering, start to doubt what is true, encourage them with Scripture.
- Provide practical help. Dealing with grief, loss, or other life-changing events can feel overwhelming. It makes it hard to handle everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning. So, often the most helpful things you can do are also among the simplest: bring them dinner, mow their lawn, schedule a house cleaning service, etc. Because they are overwhelmed, don’t make it their job to organize such help or even to tell you what they need. Think proactively about what they would need and organize it amongst your friend group.
- Remember important dates. For example, if someone’s lost a loved one, the anniversary of that death—along with things like birthdays or other dates that would remind them of their loss—can be especially hard for many years to come. Reach out to them on those days to let them know that they are loved and are not alone.
- Pray. Prayer is one of the best ways you can serve your friends. Pray for them and pray with them. Continue praying for them long after the initial outpouring of support (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and let them know that you are praying for them.
What You Should Not Do
- Don’t try to say something profound. There are no magical words you can say that will make everything right again. Don’t put that pressure on yourself, and don’t minimize their pain in that way. One specific piece of advice we heard: if the sentence you are about to say starts with “At least”—such as “At least you had that time together,” or “At least they didn’t suffer”—you should probably just remain silent instead.
- Don’t use catchphrases. When people don’t know what to say to their hurting friends, they often turn to popular phrases they’ve heard elsewhere—things like “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “Heaven needed another angel.” But these non-biblical catchphrases are generally not helpful. And in many cases, including those two specific examples, they’re not even technically true.
- Don’t put a timeline on their grief. Time does not heal all wounds, to highlight another bad catchphrase. Don’t expect someone who is grieving to have “moved on” after a few months or years. The stages of grief (like “denial,” “anger,” etc.) are not a linear process that you go through and then are finished with; people can experience them multiple times in different orders. Your grieving friend will likely have good days and bad days. They may be fine for a while, and then have those feelings return on an anniversary or holiday. Be understanding and patient (1 Corinthians 13:4), meeting your friend where they are in the moment.
- Don’t place a label on them, like “widow,” “divorcee,” or “single,” until they are ready to label themselves. They may still be adjusting to their new reality and not want to see themselves in that way.
- Don’t avoid talking about it. You might be worried that talking with your friend about someone they’ve lost would just trigger sadness. However, sharing memories about a loved one can be comforting and encouraging. And if your friend is suffering from a chronic disease or some other ongoing trial, they might not want to keep bringing it up themselves, but they’re still dealing with it every day. By asking them about it, you let them know that they are not forgotten and are not alone.
We are called to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), comfort those who are in any affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), and bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). That’s not easy; burdens never are. But it’s a way to show love to each other (John 13:35), and it’s how we would want to be treated when facing our own trials (Matthew 7:12).
Although you want to be a faithful friend, remember that you can’t be their savior. You can come alongside them in love, but you can’t fix what is broken. Because of this, a faithful friend should always point people back to Jesus—the friend who is always with us (Matthew 28:20), who heals the brokenhearted, comforts those who mourn, and brings beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). Do what you can to love your friends, and remind them that ultimately their hope is in Christ (John 16:33).