How Do I Help Someone Grieve When They Can’t?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,


My mother-in-law lost her husband 7 months ago. He lived a long, fulfilling life, and was ready to go at the end. But they were very close, and she has refused to cope with her grief. She even stopped going to church, though she has been a devoted Christian all her life. So how do you help a loved one deal with grief if she refuses to help herself? And how long is too long to be going through such a dark time in the aftermath of a loss? 


Sincerely, Daughter-in-Law


Dear Daughter-in-Law,

Every culture and family deals with grieving differently. Some of us come from families/cultures where sadness was a sign of weakness. You weren’t allowed to be depressed. The expectation was that you would stuff it and move on. Others, screamed and wailed, but there was very little hope in God. Those who are grieving often feel numb, frozen in time.

Your mother-in-law may feel she must be self-reliant as the matriarch of the family, that she needs to be strong. In doing so, she isolates herself from those who love her and could help her the most. 


It seems to me that your mother-in-law may be exhibiting signs of severe, clinical depression. She may be experiencing situational depression because of her present circumstances. In addition, she may be a depressive type person and this has been exacerbated by the death of her husband. 

I’d recommend she visit a medical doctor have her own health needs evaluated. If she has nursed her husband through a long illness, she is probably physically and emotionally depleted from being the primary caretaker. See also if she needs an antidepressant to help get her back on our feet.  

The way to break through the grief façade of someone who is hurting is with months of intensive comforting. When Job sat in utter pain and devastation, his friends sat in silence with him for days before they uttered a word. If you read Job, you know that Job would have been better off if they had kept quiet! 

Most people don’t know how to comfort others-even those closest to them. 

Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). 

Paul wrote: “Praise be to the God of all comfort who comforts us in all of our troubles, so that we can comfort others with the very same comfort with which you have comforted us.” 2 Corinthians 1:4: 

Paul wrote: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12: 15). 

Grief is always healed through mourning and comfort. Notice that this requires two people—one to mourn and one to comfort. 

Unfortunately, since few Christians know how properly to comfort others, their friends and loved ones continue living in hurt and pain. Sometimes Christian widows/widowers feel others will not understand their doubts or anger toward God. So they isolate themselves.   

The proper response to the emotionally hurt and distressed is to listen to them mourn and then to comfort them. 

Facilitating healing often rests upon things that we say or don’t say in our attempts to help those who are grieving and hurting. 

Notice What We Often Say That Jesus Never Said. 

Blessed Are They Who Mourn:  

  • For they shall be told, “Don’t keep crying. Have faith.” 
  • For they shall receive a sermon. “Heaven is better anyway.”
  • For they shall be given reasons why it was time for him to die.
  • For they shall be told how to get past the grief. 
  • For they shall be told, “That is not nearly as bad as what happened to me.”
  • For they shall be told, “Stop worrying, you’ll be fine.”
  • For they shall be told, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” 

Comfort focuses on Emotional, Feeling Words. 

For example:  

  • “I know that your heart is aching over your husband’s death, I am so sorry for what you’re experiencing.”
  • “It grieves me deeply that you are in such pain. Life is just not supposed to be this way. I am so sorry.” 
  • “It hurts you deeply that he is gone. Don’t feel like you have to be in a hurry. You have a lot of grieving in front of you. We are here to grieve with you.” 
  • “I hurt for you because I love you. I’m so sorry that you’re going through such a hard time.” 

Your mother-in-law sounds like what we call an, “rock”. She has been hurt so deeply that the thought of engaging is untenable. So what do we do? 

Comfort Tenderizes Rocks. 

Every time you, or one in your family, come in contact with her, be certain to say at least one word of comfort. Eventually you’ll begin to break through her defenses and profitable healing can occur.

Here is a short appendix from Charles Swindoll giving advice to comforters. You may find it useful.

  • Comforters Care Enough To Come Uninvited.
  • Comforters Listen Carefully So They Can Minister To The Emotions And Not React To The Words.
  • Comforters Openly Express The Depths Of Their Feelings.
  • Comforters Are Not Turned Off By Distasteful Sights.
  • Comforters Understand, So They Say Very Little. 

Every grief counselor will tell you that the mourning period is unique to every person. You may not be the person to be frank with her about how long she grieves. It may be your husband, another sibling, a close friend or pastor whom she trusts.

However, there are some concrete ways for you to help: 

  • Offer practical help.

Preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning the house or answering the telephone are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care.  

  • Keep in contact.

Call, text or write often. Remain available in the weeks and months to come, as well. Remember that your grieving mom-in-law may reach out to you later than sooner. 

  • Be aware of holidays and anniversaries.

Your mother-in-law may have a difficult time during special occasions like holidays and anniversaries. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died. Instead of avoiding those memories, this may be the time to share them.

While the above guidelines will be helpful, it is important to recognize that helping her will not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time and love that you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it. By ‘walking with’ your mother-in-law in grief, you are giving one of life’s most precious gifts–yourself. 

My experience is that most widows are still grieving several years after the loss of a loved one; but most all of them have continued to function well as the days passed by.


Well, daughter-in-law, I’ve tried to give you a basic plan for helping your mother-in-law find healing and peace.


May I summarize the formula that I use for counseling griefs and hurts: 

Mourning + Comforting + (hope, encouragement, rebuke, reasoning, and understanding God’s purposes, etc.) + Time = Healing


May God grant you and your family great success in healing the one you love so much.


Love, Roger

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