How to Help a Hurting Friend

It's time to abandon the idea that we need experience in order to offer comfort.

It was eight years ago, but I can still flash back to that room in my mind: All of us crammed in my parent’s living room, motionless bodies on couches, chairs and floors. The air was heavy with grief and shock. My Father’s body had recently been taken out of the basement where he had died the night before. And it was for that reason that we gathered in heartbroken love.

I could write a million words about the people who sat with me that day, how their simple, genuine love saved my life. Yet the one person that springs to mind in these memories is my sweet friend and college roommate, Becky.

She had no credentials that gave her permission to speak into my life other than the simple fact that she was my best friend and belonged by my side in the storm.

We met at a pizza place and our lives were totally the same yet completely different. I was casual and went to class in hoodies, Doc Martens and funky hair. Becky was (and still is) the modern day Audrey Hepburn—always dressed in flared jeans and heels with carefully coiffed hair and makeup.

So it said something when she skipped her makeup and shower that day to rush to my side. We were so young, just 22, with no experience in losing a parent. I know she was completely unsure of what to do or say, yet I remember with tender thankfulness how firmly she stayed by my side. She even offered to come with me to the bathroom, in case I was afraid to be alone.

As the years passed, she was my maid of honor and threw a thoughtful shower and crazy-fun bachelorette party. She grabbed my hand before my uncle walked me down the aisle, understanding how deeply I longed for my Dad.

She bought a last-minute plane ticket when our firstborn, Noelle, arrived, because she couldn’t bear to miss out on those fresh new baby days—she had to hold her new niece.

At my Mother’s funeral a few years later, she and her husband, Adam, stayed with my husband, Kel, and I for the entire visitation. She was by my side through all the confused, dark details. She didn’t flinch or waiver. She didn’t let things get awkward. She had no credentials that gave her permission to speak into my life other than the simple fact that she was my best friend and belonged by my side in the storm.

So often when we don’t know what to say we make one of two mistakes:

We either say something trite and painful as we attempt to put an easy bow on our friend’s grief, or we say nothing at all and keep our distance, feeling ill equipped to speak from our lack of knowledge and understanding.

Surprisingly, saying nothing is far worse than saying the wrong thing. The last thing a wounded friend needs is to wonder if their pain is too awkward for your friendship. Saying nothing may cause them to question if your friendship was shallow and only available when life was easy.

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Don’t buy into the lie that you need some sort of credentials to “go there” with the heartbroken and grieving people in your life. God knows and understands all pain, He has been there—He has been everywhere, and His papa heart is burdened when His children’s hearts break. Have faith that His spirit will equip you for every room He sends you into.

Don’t buy into the lie that you need credentials to “go there” with the heartbroken and grieving people in your life.

“A friend loves at all times” isn’t just a verse for grandmas to sweetly needlepoint on a pillows—it’s a real call to be lived out through late night phone calls, tear-stained napkins, hand delivered warm meals, thoughtful cards or however you feel called to love.

Hands and feet love will speak louder than your fear or lack of knowledge, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t stay silent. Offer your support and don’t be afraid to use the phrase “I don’t understand, but I’m so sorry and I’m here.”
  • Be specific with your support: Don’t just say “Can I do anything?” but offer a specific meal on a specific night, offer childcare, housework or lawn mowing. Think about what your practical needs would be if you found yourself in your friend’s shoes. We’re often too prideful to ask for help, but we can be persuaded with tempting and specific offers.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking things will be OK in a week. Be the one who is still checking in a month, six months and a year later. Realize that some hurts take years to heal and leave permanent scars. Your friendship will likely change as your friends heal, although I would wager that if you just “go there,” you will both come out of this stronger, more gracious and closer to God as well as to each other.




Stephanie commented…

I really appreciate the last paragraph of this piece.

We lost my nephew on May 17, the day after his first birthday. It was/is a devastating loss for my family. My friends were there when I got the phone call from my Dad and literally fell to the ground with me when he said "he's gone."

Throughout that week, as we planned the visitation and funeral, I frequently had those thoughts that I'm sure most people dealing with loss have, "Why would God do this to us? How could he take my sister's child? Is there even a God? No loving God would put my sister through something like this..."

At first, when people began saying things like "God has a reason for everything," or "You can rest easy, knowing that he's with God," I would get so annoyed. These phrases are such a cliche, especially as this event had caused me to doubt the very existence of God, but the more I heard them, the more I believed them. I needed to hear other people expressing the goodness of God, demonstrating their faith on our behalf, even if it was just a comment they made because they didn't know what else to say.

Since then, my friends have been checking in with me, asking how I'm doing, how my family is doing, asking about my sister and her husband. I don't know that we'll ever fully recover from the loss of my nephew, but there is an incredible comfort in knowing that people in your life are willing to experience the grief with you.



Christa commented…

This is a great article. However I have learned through losing my own father that everyone grieves differently. I lost my dad when I was 21. He passed away in a hospital bed in the living room of our house. A lot of people said a lot of things to me and my family (not always the best things either). For me, the people that helped the most were those who didn't say anything. Those that would just sit with me, hug me, or hold my hand were the most comforting. In those incredibly difficult times, no words were comforting.

Sandra Boedecker


Sandra Boedecker commented…

I have to agree with Christa. It's never a good idea to make a one-size-fits-all prescription for something like responding to grief. Personally I get very frustrated with cliches and I am not one for hugs except from VERY close friends. Always take into account the personality and preferences of the grieving person.
That said, I completely agree that you need to follow up after the initial flower-and-card stage. No one likes to feel like their grief has been forgotten by others.

Andrew Gilmore


Andrew Gilmore commented…

Awesome piece Leanne.

My friend went through a hard time a few years ago. He would pour out despair to me, and I didn't know what to do with it. It was like trying to catch rain with your hands.

It was awkward and uncomfortable for me, but I realized that that was okay. It wasn't about me. He needed me to be there, even if it was weird.

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