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4 Principles for Guiding a Friend Through Tragedy


When I was in 5th grade, one of my best friends was a guy named Matt Brown. He was the class clown who would make everyone laugh but frustrated the teachers to no end. He also had a huge heart. He was one of the few friends I could have over whenever I wanted because he treated my mom (and our house) so well.
One Sunday afternoon, our school principal called the house to inform us that Matt had been hit by a car while crossing the street on his bike. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The next week was surreal. My teachers, who had been threatening detention to Matt just a few days before, were choking back tears. The entire school was spreading rumors about what had happened. The principal even let everyone out of school that Thursday for his funeral. The entire community was devastated.

I’ll never forget my encounter with Matt’s priest at the viewing. It was my first funeral and my first time in a Roman Catholic setting. As we were leaving, I shook his hand and thanked him. At that point, he gave me the two-handed conciliatory handshake with the “I am so sorry” look on his face. To be honest, I didn’t find it encouraging as much as I did a little weird. I can’t explain why but something in his face and his mannerisms struck me as uncomfortable. I could tell he was trying to comfort me and I was appreciative of it, but he wasn’t very good at it.

When it comes to tragedy, some people have the gift of sympathy and others don’t. That priest, as well intentioned as he was, didn’t seem to have it. So if your friend is suffering through a tragedy and sympathy doesn’t come naturally, how can you be there for him?

1.) Be yourself.

If you’re the guy who gives everyone a good time and distracts them from the stress of their lives, don’t try being the deep and thoughtful one. If that isn’t a good look for you, don’t stretch yourself. When Matt died, I remember wishing on Sunday night that Monday morning would just be another day. When we got back home from visiting his mom, all I wanted to do was watch TV and pretend for a few hours like nothing had happened. I needed a sliver of normalcy so I could cope.

You may not be the person your friends pour out their hearts to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a source of comfort. Invite them out for dinner. Bring over a movie and some pizza. If they want to talk about what they’re going through, listen and ask questions. If not, don’t force it. You’re being the distraction they need.

2.) Don’t over spiritualize everything.

Tragedies are a powerful time where many people finally open themselves up to spiritual conversations. It can be an opportunity to talk with them about Christ and his victory over our death and struggles. It’s also an appropriate time to pray, publically and privately, for those involved. However, sometimes we like to pepper every moment and memory with spiritual sayings, not all of which are necessarily good theology. When my grandfather died a few years ago, everyone and their mothers reminded me that he was looking down on us from Heaven. The theological side of me wanted to critique those comments and the honestly human side of me wanted to say, “Yeah, but he isn’t here anymore so it still really sucks!”

Don’t get me wrong. Pray, dig into Scripture, and remind people of God’s sovereignty through these painful times. But when we go overboard, it actually creates a sense of guilt for those who are hurting. It can make people wonder if it’s right to still be in pain when their loved ones are “in a better place now” or when “God still has a plan.” In reality, even Jesus grieved over Lazarus before bringing him back to life. It’s a tough balancing act but it’s important to be mindful of going to an unhealthy extreme.

3.) Find Practical Ways to Help

The more a person is active, the less they’re able to stop and mourn. Find practical ways to take the load off your friend. Can you mow their lawn? Do they need a home cooked meal? Can you take over some of their responsibilities at work for a time? These are all little things that will give the person more space if he or she needs it.

4.) Keep it up.

It’s often not the funeral or the days before that are so difficult after losing a loved one. In fact, you’re typically in so much shock that you aren’t ready to mourn yet. The painful part is when everyone else moves on. The house is suddenly empty and you’re back to work with unrelenting responsibilities. For a few days, life goes on pause but the grieving process takes much longer.

This is where a true friend is so valuable. Continue being sensitive to your friend’s needs. That doesn’t mean that you bring it up every chance you get. However, don’t forget to keep being the distraction and occasionally ask how things are going. Watch for strange behavior, in the event he or she may be struggling with something deeper like clinical depression. Don’t let the person slip through the cracks. This might be when they need you the most.

There really isn’t a formula to walking someone through a tragedy. It’s a tough road to be on but these general rules, and many others, can help you through the process.

What else would you add to this list?

Posted in: Tragedy

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  • Amy Oliver

    Matt- this is fantastic! While these seem like simple things, I have found people often have a hard time putting them into practice. I would add one of the best pieces of advice I got after my mom passed away -“Be with people who give you the freedom to feel what you feel when you feel it.” Oddly, in my experience, most people aren’t very good at this. Either they give you sad eyes and want you to talk about it all the time or when you do want to talk about it, get very awkward. It was healing for me to be with people who, even though they couldn’t necessarily understand, did give me the freedom to feel whatever I was feeling at the moment I felt it.

    • Matt Morrison

      Thanks Amy! I was really sorry to hear about your mom passing away. Im glad you were able to find those kinds of friends around you. I think it’s great advice!