When tragedy strikes, you need your friends and neighbors. You need them to hug you, to help you, to be a tangible reminder of what is good and beautiful and right in the world.
And when tragedy strikes your friends, I know you want to be there for them, too.
But I also know how you feel. Often, you’re tongue-tied. You don’t know what to say. And you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing.
Here are 5 things you can say to your brokenhearted friend:
1. “I’m here.” Never underestimate the power of your presence, especially your continued presence. First, however, ask yourself honestly if you’re an “inner-circle friend” or an “outer-circle friend.” Our inner-circle friends are those who are closest to us, who we would call to come over in the middle of the night during a crisis.
If it’s an inner-circle friend who is suffering, try to be there in person as quickly as you can after the tragedy strikes. Don’t disappear because it’s uncomfortable. Continue to be present as often as possible- even just stopping by to give a quick hug can be a welcome encouragement. You can also send encouraging texts, emails, voicemails, and a card or care package through the mail to communicate to your friend that you are “here” and that he or she is not alone.
Outer-circle friends are dear to us, but we probably wouldn’t call them in the middle of the night. Choose to trust that even though you may be an outer-circle friend, you are still loved and appreciated and your friend needs to know you are “here.”
Often, people need time to grieve and process and would prefer that their outer-circle friends give them space instead of stopping by to see them unannounced. If you aren’t sure, ask a family member or someone else very close to the person when it would be appropriate to come by and visit. If you’re told your friend needs space, respect that need. Instead, you can place a card, a favorite snack, or a thoughtful gift on the doorstep, such as a basket of fruit, candy, or muffins, fresh flowers, a restaurant gift card, or a soft blanket. Try to go beyond sending a Facebook message, but resist the urge to text or email questions that require a response- ask family members those questions instead. You don’t want your friend to feel more overwhelmed by having to respond.
2. “I’ll listen.” Your friend is most likely overwhelmed by deep emotions. If you’re an inner-circle friend, give him or her the freedom to feel them all. Deeply. Don’t try to fix anything, don’t tell your own stories of tragedy, and don’t offer words of advice unless asked. Just listen, feel, and let your own tears fall. That’s it.
If you’re an outer-circle friend, don’t expect deep sharing. If your friend chooses to share, consider it a gift. And, again, don’t offer advice if your friend doesn’t ask for it. Just listen.
3. “I’m praying for you.” If you choose to say or write this to your friend, commit to actually pray. Write yourself a note and post it somewhere you’ll see it often to remind yourself to pray. Send your friend a prayer you are praying for him or her, or, if you’re an inner-circle friend, you could send a recording of you praying. When we are in crisis, hearing the voices of our close friends praying for us can be a deep encouragement. Or, stop by to pray with your friend in person.
4. “I will help you.” Don’t just say, “Let me know if you need anything.” When we’re in crisis, we often don’t know what we need and rarely can we even remember the specific people who have offered that general sentiment. Instead, ask someone close to the person what you can do specifically to help.
Whether you’re an inner or outer-circle friend, you can step in to help with everyday needs, such as signing up to bring a meal, babysitting, cleaning the refrigerator, or driving kids to school or a piano lesson. If needed, offer to research and connect your friend with professional help, such as a pastor, police officer, lawyer, doctor, accountant, or counselor. Continue to check in with family members, asking how you can help. And be sure to follow through.
5. “You’re gonna make it through this.” If you’re an outer-circle friend, this sentiment may sound rather hollow if you aren’t going to be in the muddy trenches with your friend while he or she is learning to navigate life after the tragedy. So, resist the urge to say it. Instead, just communicate your love.
But if you’re an inner-circle friend, or an outer-circle friend who is committed to being in the muddy trenches, this can be a profound encouragement. So, after (and only after) spending time sitting with your friend in the raw emotions brought on by the tragedy, you can offer a word of hope, such as, “I’m going to walk with you through this, whatever it looks like, and you’re gonna make it.”
Don’t think for a minute that your friends and neighbors don’t need you, that their other friends will make up for your absence. Communicate your love by being Present. Listening. Praying. Helping. And offering Hope.
And if you’re tongue-tied, that’s ok. It may be that your silent presence is the one gift your friend needs the most.