What Acts of Kindness Can YOU Offer Those Who Mourn?

By Janice Hall Heck with Chaplain Bob Ossler

Who answers the questions that erupt after an incomprehensible tragedy? “Where is God?” “Why me?” Why did this happen?” One answer is chaplains. Chaplains of all faiths serve on the front lines of critical incidents as first responders in crises caused by terrorist attacks, natural disasters, fires, and other emergencies. While remaining true to their faith, chaplains commit to offering compassionate care to anyone in need, regardless of religious preference.

Chaplains and religious leaders counsel people who grieve, but close friends can also fulfill this role. Other friends may offer temporary comfort, but long-term, trusted friends make the difference between emotional survival and clinical depression. What you say is critical to a person who suffers. This excerpt from Triumph Over Terror, chronicling Chaplain Bob Ossler’s experiences at Ground Zero on The Pile after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, offers ways you can support those struggling with trauma and loss in the short and long term.

Sit and wait. When a grieving person cannot bear comfort, you must sit and wait, just as Job’s friends sat with him and waited seven days, saying nothing, before speaking to him about his suffering. (Job 1:13) When Job managed to speak, he lamented: “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas. . . .”(Job 6:2-3) “My eyes will never see happiness again.” (Job 7:7)

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Listen from the heart. Our first charge is to understand that grieving is complex and to listen carefully when the grieving person speaks. The grieving person may repeat the same stories over and over, or describe in detail the sequence of the illness, or the accident, or murder, or actions causing the death. It’s normal for these stories to echo constantly through the griever’s mind.

Give the gift of time. Understand that the person who mourns cannot respond in normal ways. Extreme mood swings, confusion, and sudden fits of crying are normal. And remember, they will never be the same person they were before their loved one’s death.

Respect the grieving person’s right for privacy. Let them grieve in the manner they choose, but do not forget them. Even though they may seem to reject it, they still need your comfort and compassion. Invite them to participate in your social events. Take them to lunch. Drop by to see how they’re faring.

Offer prayers for comfort. Some may be ready for prayer; others may not be. Be sensitive. The pain of grieving often blocks a person from hearing words of comfort. Be patient. Pray silently when the grieving person is not ready for oral prayer.

Be a friend now—and for the long run. After emotional events such as the death of a loved one, relationships and old friendships sometimes become strained. Other family members and bystanders simply can’t understand the depths of emotional pain the grieving person suffers. They feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say, so they stay away. Be courageous and spend quality time with the suffering person.

Share memories about their loved one. During the memorial service, family and friends tell tearful stories of their memories of the deceased person. However afterward, people rarely mention the name of the deceased for fear of arousing emotional pain. Yet, not hearing the name causes equal pain. Grievers crave hearing their loved one’s name and yearn to hear more stories about their lives. They want to remember the details of their life—not forget them.

Offer practical acts of kindness. Help the grieving person face each new task. Help them make funeral arrangements, pay bills, do laundry, cook, and clean. All these tasks are insurmountable at first, but a little help from a friend shrinks the tasks to manageable size.

Send cards, but add a personal touch. Circle or underline key words to show you’ve

Photo by Mary Eble

Photo by Mary Eble

carefully selected the card. Add a personal note. Send “Thinking of you” greetings from time to time. People who grieve often think their friends have forgotten them. Your card or note reassures them that they’re not forgotten. Send index cards with encouraging Bible verses with your card.

Provide a healthy meal. Keep in mind that not everyone likes tuna-noodle casseroles or pasta dishes.

Chaplain Bob Ossler. Walking my friend to a doctor's appointment in Philadelphia

Walking my elderly friend to his doctor’s appointment in Philadelphia. Chaplain Bob Ossler

Offer transportation to appointments. Grief consumes the brain’s resources and focus. Driving in traffic adds to their stress. Transport them to their appointments, and then treat them to a meal. They need a break and some company.

Encourage grieving people to seek community support groups or individual counseling. The grieving person may benefit from counseling or connecting with others who experienced a similar loss. When appropriate, ask if they’ve considered talking to a counselor or pastor, or joining a grief recovery group. Provide names and addresses of counselors or grief groups obtained from people who’ve experienced the same type of loss.

Suggest support groups. Griefshare (griefshare.org/hope) or TAPS (www.taps.org) help mourners identify with others going through the same struggles.

Grieving is a lonely process, but family members, friends, caregivers, and others can offer comfort and restore hope in the lives of those who have lost loved ones.

Chaplain Bob Ossler and Janice Hall Heck have coauthored Triumph Over Terror, a book about Chaplain’s Ossler’s experiences at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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