Our church has experienced several deaths in the past month. These were people I knew well, whose loss I feel deeply. But my feelings pale in comparison to those of their spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren. According to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope, but we do still grieve. The Gospels record two times that Jesus wept, and one was at the tomb of a friend. I have learned a lot about grief in my years in the ministry. But I truly learned about grief when I lost loved ones of my own. I can remember when my grandmother lay dying, and people from the community came to visit her. I overheard them saying to her as they left, “I sure hope you get better soon!” That infuriated me. She was laying in a hospital bed in her living room, barely able to speak. But they made it sound like she had a cold. Their words seemed like a mockery to me. Now, over a decade later, I know how unreasonable I was. They were trying to be kind in visiting her. But I also know how their “comfort” made me feel in the moment.
So, for the sake of the grieving people in my own congregation now, and for all those who have grieved, are grieving, or will someday grieve a loss, here’s a list of the worst things to say to someone who is hurting:
“God needed him more than you do.” Stop and think about how selfish that makes God sound. And it’s certainly not true. God doesn’t “need” anyone. He is perfectly content in the Godhead. When our loved ones pass away, it’s not because God requires their companionship.
“It was just God’s will.” First of all, we don’t know that to be true. If someone is murdered, was it God’s will? What about a suicide? Or a drunk-driving accident? We live in a warped, sin-stained world that God is in the process of redeeming; until then, things will happen that are NOT part of God’s original plan. It’s just a bad idea all around to try to interpret God’s will for someone else’s life. Oh, and by the way, I assume you know not to say something like, “You must have done something to cause God to do this to you.” People who say such things should be glad a gracious God is their judge, and not me. I would zap them with extreme prejudice.
She’s your guardian angel now. No, she’s not. People are people, angels are angels, and there is no biblical evidence that ever the twain shall meet.
Look on the bright side. Or some version of this, such as “You have so many other things to be thankful for,” or “You should be grateful for the time you had with him,” or worst of all, “You can still have another baby.” People in grief aren’t ready to look on the bright side. We need to respect their need to grieve instead of trying to distract them from it. Speaking of which…
Don’t cry. Okay, we probably don’t actually say that, but when in the presence of a grieving person, we often feel intensely uncomfortable. We see a side of them that we’ve never seen before. Suddenly, this once strong, dignified person loses all social decorum, turns red, trembles, weeps, moans, and generally collapses. Our gut instinct is to do whatever we can to make those tears stop. But what if those tears are exactly what is needed? Jesus said Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, not “Blessed are those who keep a stiff upper lip and an ironic eye roll.” Psalm 56:8 says God keeps all our tears in a bottle, which I take to mean that when we cry, He pays attention to it. He remembers it. Our tears are not an embarrassment to Him. Neither should they be to us.
There is an exception to this, though. Jesus once told a grieving widow, “Don’t cry,” and then He raised her son from the dead. Let’s all agree that when you or I develop the power to reverse death, we’ll also have the right to tell someone else how to grieve.
It’s time to move on. Rick Warren is a well-known pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life. In 2015, his son Matthew took his own life at age 27 after battling depression for years. A year later, Rick’s wife Kay wrote a blog post that went viral, entitled, “Don’t Tell Mourners to Move On.” In it, she wrote of people who seemed surprised she was still grieving, They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever… There is no rule book for mourning. Everyone mourns in their own way. We may be legitimately concerned about their emotional health, but unless we are close enough to them to suggest seeing a therapist, asking them when they will “get over it” is a way of saying, “Your grief is an inconvenience to me.” To put it mildly, that doesn’t help.
How are you doing? This one seems harmless, and all of us have asked it with the best of intentions. But Warren’s blog post reveals something most of us have never thought of: Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok), to end the conversation, or try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it.
Call me if you need anything. I’ve said this one many times. But no one ever called. I finally realized, people who are mourning aren’t capable of knowing what they need for you to do. They are in a fog. When we say, “call me if you need anything,” or “Let me know what I can do,” we aren’t harming them, necessarily, but our words are meaningless. If we really want to help, we’ll offer to do tangible things: “Can I bring you some food? Want to bring the kids over to my house for a few hours? Want me to go to the funeral home with you?”
He’s in a better place. This isn’t always the wrong thing to say. God’s Word tells us about the certainty of Heaven for a reason. But if you don’t know the deceased well, your words may ring hollow (“How do you know where He is? You don’t know anything about him.”). And if talking about Heaven is just a way to spin their thoughts toward happiness, it’s just another version of “Don’t cry” or “Move on.” So yes, talking about our assurance of Heaven can be the perfect thing to say, under the right circumstances. Just don’t be surprised if they’re not ready to think cheerful thoughts yet.
So what should we say to grieving people? “I’m so sorry” is always welcome. “I’m praying for you,” works as well (especially if you actually are). But mostly, it’s not about what you say. It’s being there that matters. Spend time with them. If you feel like crying, don’t hold back. Weeping alongside them can be incredibly comforting. Checking in with them weeks (or even months) after the funeral, when everyone else seemingly has forgotten their grief, is powerful as well. Listen to them. Don’t be shocked if they express confusion, even anger toward God. Don’t feel you have to defend the Lord; Job’s friends made that mistake. Sometimes, the less you say, the better. Your presence is what matters. They will remember, years later, that you were there.
Earlier, I reference 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which indicates that although we are not exempt from grief, there is a distinctively Christian way to mourn. We have hope that the world does not. Perhaps part of that is the way we grieve alongside others. Someday, this world will be renewed. Someday, the Savior who died for us will be the King who rules over us. Someday, sickness, pain and death will be no more, and our Father will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until that day, let’s make sure we know how to weep with those who weep…in a way that actually comforts them.