A Seventh-day Adventist Organization

Four tips for helping a friend cope with grief in the aftermath of tragedy

Actions are more important than words when helping a friend cope with grief.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the San Bernardino massacre, a Loma Linda University Health professor has a suggestion for people who want to help friends or community members who have lost loved ones. Sigve K. Tonstad, MD, PhD, a professor at Loma Linda University School of Religion and assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, says the right thing to say may be nothing at all.

Here are four tips for helping them cope:

  1. It’s not what you say

“It’s not about what you say,” Tonstad observes, “it’s what you do. To grieve with the victims, to be part of a community that grieves with the victims, is very important. Having a caring and remembering community around them, willing to listen, willing to just be there—that is very helpful.”

With degrees in both religion and medicine, Tonstad finds himself caring for patients in their time of loss and pain as both a physician and theologian.

“Those directly affected by loss,” he says, “do not just return to normal when the tragedy is over and everybody else has moved on.”

  1. Help them remember

Helping friends who have lost their mates has taught Tonstad an important lesson.

“They don’t want to forget,” he says. “They want to remember. They want someone who will let them reminisce and grieve. They need someone to listen.”

  1. Don’t preach

Preaching or lecturing people who are hurting or offering simplistic theological truisms can do more harm than good.

“The conversation about the theology of suffering needs to happen in a space far removed from the actual suffering,” he notes. “There is a place to discuss the theology of evil, but not in the place where there is actual suffering.”

In times when feelings of great pain and loss are being felt, Tonstad says he doesn’t know what to say.

“As a clinician,” he shares, “I have participated in situations of loss many times. I just stick to listening. I don’t talk. I have come to believe that listening and being there have value.”

  1. Move respectfully into their space

“When someone is hurting, I want to be in that person’s space,” Tonstad notes. “I want to offer hugs, skin contact, and a listening ear.

“In the Bible,” he concludes, “the patriarch Job suffers enormous losses—family, property, livestock, and, healt—all on the same dreadful day. His friends come and do nothing but sit with him for seven days. That’s when they were at their very best. They blew it as soon as they started talking.”