January 18, 2021

People need friends, not fixers


My job is not to fix you. Nor you me. Nor is it our collective calling to fix one another. To be “our brother’s keeper” does not mean that we are responsible to do for our brother what he can only do for himself by God’s grace.

This is one of those areas where American culture hurts us. We are “can do” people, fixers who see most everything as a problem needing to be resolved.

Now I will be the first to admit, this has taken us a long way and served us well in many aspects of life. The drive and ability to mend broken things, solve thorny dilemmas and find answers to persistent problems is not something to be discounted. I don’t look down my nose at ingenuity, creativity, skill, and innovation that makes our lives better. I am happy to live in an “age of miracles and wonders” in the most productive and prosperous nation the world has ever known. Productivity is a good thing. So is solving problems.

However, when ministering to people and trying to offer true help, counsel, and support to them — especially those who are hurting and/or experiencing loss — nothing could be more counterproductive.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am attending a training for bereavement caregivers this week in Scottsdale, Arizona led by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. Dr. Wolfelt advocates “companioning” people in their grief, not “treating” them in order that they might “resolve” their grief, as has been the common model.

This treatment approach by which we “help” our fellow human beings is insufficient in this arena, though it is still promoted. In the medical field where I work, on the common template we follow we have to list a person’s problems, the goals of treatment, and the interventions we use to help achieve those goals. It doesn’t really fit what I do as a chaplain in hospice, but I have to chart my work in that fashion.

Even though they wouldn’t put it in those terms, this is also a common perspective Christian people and churches rely upon when trying to “help” hurting people.

  • What’s the problem?
  • What’s the goal (or, where does God want them to be)?
  • What steps can we help them take to reach that goal?

They have the problem. We have the answers. Let’s give them the answers and when they apply those answers they will be fixed. Then we move on to the next problem case and solve that one.

The companioning model urges us to do something different. Instead of taking the role of teacher or leader, we should let the person who is grieving be our teacher. We walk with him and let him tell his story and guide us in understanding what the loss has meant to him and how it has impacted his life. Whatever “help” or “counsel” we give will grow out of earned trust and it will be organically related to an ongoing conversation between people who give and take with each other in a context of hospitality and sanctuary.

On the Center for Loss website, the following approach is presented as appropriate for helping those who are grieving:

Listening: Helping begins with your capacity to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to and empathizing with the words that are being shared with you.

Having compassion: Give the griever permission to express her true thoughts and feelings without fear of criticism. There are no right or wrong feelings; whatever she is thinking and feeling is precisely what she needs to think and feel. Don’t try to take her feelings away by judging them, denying them, or offering simple solutions. Also, never say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Not exactly. Think about your helper role as someone who walks alongside the person who is mourning.

Understanding the uniqueness of grief: Keep in mind that each person’s grief is unique. While it may be possible to talk about similar thoughts and feelings shared by grieving people, everyone is different and shaped by experiences in their own particular lives.

Being patient: The grief process takes a long time. Allow your loved one to proceed at his own pace.

Being there: Your ongoing and reliable presence is the most important gift you can give to someone who is grieving. While you can’t take the pain away (nor should you try to), you can honor it and bear witness to it by being there for him. Remain available in the weeks, months, and years to come. Remember that the griever may need you more later on than at the time of the death.

Being a helper in grief isn’t easy. It may test your patience, your character, your fortitude—and your deepest reserves of compassion. But it is also one of the most rewarding roles you can undertake in this life. Helping a fellow human being heal and go on to live and love fully again—what could be more meaningful than that?

Then, in this article, Dr. Wolfelt describes some of the practical things that might be involved in such a companioning approach.

You see, what people want (and truly need) is genuine connection with other human beings who will love them and honor their individuality and the unique experiences they have had. People need friends, not fixers.

They don’t need well intentioned (or not) people throwing Bible verses and simplistic clichés (that almost always represent bad theology) their way. They don’t need “helpers” who too easily dismiss the reality of their suffering, minimize its significance, or suggest that it is just a bump in the road they need to get past. Grieving people need folks who are willing to be truly present to them, pay attention to them, truly listen, patiently care and keep caring no matter how long it takes or even if they never “get over” their losses.

As Dr. Wolfelt says repeatedly, loss is rooted in love, not logic. The “answer” therefore is not to find a logical “solution” to the “problem.” It is rather to love and to keep on loving in such a way that the person feels safe and has room to mourn the loss that is, at its very heart, defined by loving attachments which have been broken.

The role of “helpers” is to provide hospitality and sanctuary for our brothers and sisters who are hurting. In such places of refuge, we “help” by allowing and encouraging them do their own unique work of mourning the losses for which they grieve.


  1. senecagriggs says

    A therapist friend of mine described her role as “the keeper of stories.”

  2. William H. Martin Jr says

    A friend of mine in the business of flooring I have known for 30 years lost his youngest son in a car accident. The truck couldn’t have hit any better to kill this 21 year old . 3 seconds either way and it wouldn’t have happened. He was the favorite so to speak with an athletic build and smart out of four boys and the youngest. Jim called the day it happened and I tried to listen as the pain was all over his voice. Saying I just want to die.

    The only thing I could say is I’m so sorry for your loss. It has to be the worse that can happen to a parent. I said to him try and be strong right now because your family needs you. There will be time for you to grieve. Lots of time.

    Left it go for awhile then reached out. He was getting advice from a good man I know but is Baptist. I don’t know how that is going. Jim the man with the loss says he is mad at God. I always tell people get mad at God and do it as much as you need to. I have been many times. Screaming at the top of my lungs on top a mountain. Thought I almost hurt myself a couple of times. I told him do it till your done and don’t stop till you are. Do what you need to do..

    I told him God was bigger than all our sin He certainly is able to overcome our anger. Besides if it’s honest what more can be part of a relationship. You’ll get to the end someday. It might never make sense this side but dialogue no matter if it is anger or happiness is just that and that’s better than nothing. We’ll see its only been 2 months and he definitely has a ways to go.

    I’ll wait awhile more to see if he reaches out to me before I try again.

    • Yeah, I tell people who are suffering, too, that it is ok and normal to be mad at God, mad at the world, mad at everything. I am truly more concerned with the people who aren’t mad but just say that it’s God wil because that makes me think they are not living with the reality of the loss.

      It’s hard. It’s very hard to be with those in pain and not try to fix what cannot be fixed.

  3. This is wonderful advice not just for grief but for other issues. After 66 years, I have finally learned that sometimes the best way to help someone heal is to just listen and love them.

  4. the sad rain falls
    in quiet lanes
    and noisy gutters

  5. Fabulous!

  6. back in my pastoring days, a youth in our town was killed in a car accident. One of my parishioners was the best friend of the youth’s dad. My parishioner came to me looking for advice on how to help his friend. Conversation went like this:
    Me: “what have you been doing?”
    “Last week we got coffee at the HandeeStop and the two of us drove into the mountains for the afternoon.”
    Me: “did you talk?”
    “When he wanted to talk we talked and when he didn’t want to talk we didn’t.”
    Me: “Perfect. Keep up the good work.”
    Me: “There’s not a single thing I could tell you that would do your friend any better than what you’re already doing.”

  7. Mike, thinking about my life situation and the grief I have caused my wife. Your words for assisting someone in their grief (obviously doesn’t just have to be loss in terms of someone dieing) are very true. But what I really struggle with is doing the things suggested on the Centre for Loss website when I have been the cause of the grief/loss. When it’s caused by or happened to someone ‘out there’ it is different to when you are the cause

    Anyway just my reflection. Nonetheless it helps me is seeing what I need to be faithful in doing and being

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