On occasion someone will ask me what books I might give to someone struggling with grief and loss. This is certainly not a bad question. After all, there are a myriad of resources on the issue, many of them having the potential to greatly encourage, describe expectations and provide helpful guidance in the midst of pain. With that being said, I generally encourage others to not give books to those who are grieving. At least not at first. There are a number of reasons for this. Among them, I think that it is first helpful for you to do a little reading of your own — to get down and put on their shoes if you will. Additionally, there are a number of other things that comforters and counselors can do to help. And, we might miss these by occupying ourselves with the giving of books rather than first understanding what those things are! Here a few resources for you to consider reading when coming alongside of others struggling with grief and loss.
Written by Nancy Guthrie, this book is designed specifically for those who want to become better helpers to those suffering. Guthrie’s vision is not simply that you avoid the things that would hurt. Rather, she insists that you have the opportunity to provide deep encouragement and support in those times. Alluding to the death of two of her children, she writes, “Over these years since Hope and Gabriel died, I’ve interacted with many grieving people. I’ve listened to grieving people talk about their deep disappointment and ongoing alienation from people around them who just don’t seem to ‘get it.’ But I’ve also heard them speak movingly of the unexpected, often simply things people around them have said or done that demonstrated a deep sensitivity to their pain and a willingness to enter into it with them.” (Guthrie, 13)
She covers a number of topics including what to say and not say, as well as what to do and not do. She explores helpful assumptions that we might make regarding those who grieve and also tackles the thorny issue of talking about heaven and hell. While Guthrie’s book is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject (possibly leaving you with a few more questions by the end of the read), her counsel is clear, frank and quite practical. This is a great place to start when considering encouraging those who are working through grief and loss.
Though this resource is specifically about the loss of a spouse, it contains many principles and practices that would be applicable in a number of grief situations. What is unique about this book is that it is coauthored by a pastor and a counselor who each had lost their spouse. Throughout the book, they offer complementary perspectives, one from the pastor and one from the counselor on a various topics. For instance, on the topic of the process of grief, the counselor urges those grieving to consider the myths, tasks, and themes of the grief process. The pastor, on the other hand, encourages the grieving to consider the One who accompanies us as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Because this work is geared specifically to the situation of the loss of a spouse, the authors discuss a number of issues specifically related to those circumstances. How should I grieve as a parent? How do I navigate financial and employment issues? Should I and how should I consider the prospect of remarriage? Nevertheless, their treatment of the general process of grief is a valuable resource for those who are grieving, as well as those who wish to help others. In answering the question of ‘why grieve,’ the authors propose a counter question that functions as a gracious challenge to those working through grief: Because you cannot simply ignore the acute sense of pain in grief, they ask ‘how intentional will you be in the process?’ (De Vries and Zonnebelt-Smeenge, p. 14)
Arguably, the book of Job is not primarily about grief or loss or counseling. Rather, God recognizes the perennial and troublesome questions associated with faith and suffering. Is God really in control? Does this God truly love me? How can a God of absolute power and absolute goodness coexist with the reality of evil and suffering? Can I trust God? Yet, the narrative alongside these questions provides us with some helpful clues on how to approach those in pain.
As you recall, as Job faces the loss of all his wealth and possessions, physical pain, and grief over the death of his family, several ‘comforters’ sit with him as helpers, as counselors. Their counsel provides little comfort to Job in his pain. “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left in your answers but falsehood.” (Job 21:34) How might you appreciate that response from someone you are trying to help? We might be inclined to defend Job’s comforters. Yet, we would be surprised to see that God himself rebukes them: “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)
What might we learn from reading this book, taking note of Job’s counselors? Let me suggest several things. First, there exists a priority of listening over speaking. After having been taught as a child that I have two ears and one mouth, and after having experienced the frustration of not being heard at times in my life, and after going through a counseling program that intentionally instructs the students on listening skills, I am often amazed at how I fail to do this. James reminds us: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.” (James 1:19) One of my heroes of the faith, Francis Schaeffer, once stated that if had one hour to spend with someone, he would spend 55 minutes listening by asking questions and then spend the last 5 minutes sharing the truth. (https://www.covenantseminary.edu/francis-schaeffer-the-man-and-his-message/) There is a unique power that comes through simple, engaged listening.
Second, suffering is complex. There is a tendency among Christians to first insist that any human suffering comes from personal sin. Jesus’ first disciples grappled with Jesus’ astounding claim: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:1-3) Approaching pain, grief, and loss is a sobering, messy, and complicated work. More often than not, we find circumstances to be mixed, an alchemy of guilt over personal failure, brokenness due to a fallen world, and becoming a victim to injustices happening to us. Such complexity should lead us to a slow, unassuming and paced approach as we come alongside others in need.
Zonnebelt-Smeenge Ed.D Susan J. R. N. and De Vries C Robert, Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998).