By Tammy Kennington, Crosswalk.com
He sat in the ashes, scraping oozing sores with a pottery shard. Once a wealthy man, Job mourned alone in the city’s trash heap.
Following an encounter between God and Satan in the heavenly courts, the enemy set his sights on Job. Determined to prove that the man would only remain faithful to the Lord while under cover of blessing, Satan killed Job’s 10 adult children, enlisted men to destroy Job’s property and source of wealth, and attacked Job with festering boils from head to heel. Grief consumed Job. Scripture tells us that three friends “made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him” (Job 2:11 NKJV). If you’ve read the full story, you know that things did not go as anyone planned.
This story of Job and his friends raises an important question: should Christians say anything to someone who is grieving? If so, what things can we say? When should we avoid saying anything to someone who is grieving?
We will consider these questions and a few others in this article.
What Can Be Harmful to Say to Someone Grieving?
As part of my annual Bible reading plan, I am going through the book of Job. I am always a little surprised that Job’s friends so easily turned from their goal of supporting Job to words of accusation. The passage where they switch attitudes reminds me of Bible verses like Romans 12:15 (NKJV), “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” and Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV), “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted….”
The word translated as “tenderhearted” comes from the original word eusplagchnos which means gut-level empathy and compassion. A gut-level compassion reaches into the core of our experience and personal pain. It invites understanding and helps us relate to another’s experience. That sort of tenderhearted empathy neither minimizes, disregards, or judges the grief with which someone is struggling.
A few years ago, a friend lost her teenage son to suicide. A gentleman we both knew approached her and said with a bright smile, “He’s in a better place.” My friend blanched and tried to offer a response, but she was visibly uncomfortable. She longed for her child to experience life and grow into adulthood, but her grief and the manner of her son’s death were downplayed.
Though well intended, many other platitudes may illicit anger or injure an already hurting person. They include the following:
1. “God needed another angel.” Not only is this statement theologically unsound, but God does not need people. (Acts 17:25) Instead, we are his unique creation in need of Him.
2. “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” If we could manage life, then why would we depend on God? And those of us who have lost loved ones know that death feels far from bearable.
3. “I know how you feel.” Every individual walks through grief differently. Other people can empathize, but assuming another’s feelings might make the bereaved feel misunderstood.
4. “You’re young. You can [get married again], [have another baby] [insert other “you can do it again” action here].” Youth does not diminish death’s impact on the spirit. People are not commodities to be replaced. Grief, though uncomfortable, must be allowed its place for those in mourning to process their loss.
4. “Time heals all wounds.” While tender thoughts of remembrance eventually replace the raw ache left when death occurs, the absence felt when a dear one passes remains.
5. “At least they are not in pain anymore.” If the individual who died was a believer, family and friends will eventually find comfort in knowing their loved one is in heaven with the Lord. But to say this immediately following a loved one’s death? They are in pain. Empathizing with their situation would make a far more positive difference.
What Helpful Things Can We say to Someone Grieving?
While rash, haughty words tear down, empathetic words often provide comfort—like salve to a bleeding wound. Consider the words below that can help someone who is grieving.
1. “I’m here for you. Why don’t I (fill in the blank).” Examples include watching the kids on Wednesday, organizing a meal train this month, or stopping by to pick up laundry on Saturday. Immediately following a death or funeral, those left behind may struggle to concentrate, deal with depression or anxiety, and require assistance with household tasks as life falls into a new rhythm.
2. “It must be so hard to have lost ___________.” A blog post by funeral and cremation service Tippecanoe Memory Gardens observes that an important key to expressing empathy is indicating to the grieving individual that you understand their emotion. This sort of sentence conveys a willingness to listen to the heart of a friend in suffering.
3. “Do you want to talk about how you are feeling today?” This question invites conversation and the healthy voicing of difficult feelings that may otherwise leave a mourner experiencing inner isolation.
4. “I remember when we all….” Sharing a special memory or trait with a grieving family member or friend will encourage them during a dark time.
5. “I would love to know more about ____________. Tell me about them.” Do not avoid mentioning the name of the loved one who has passed away. Instead, invite your friend to talk about them. The invitation will be a welcome one.
6. “I can imagine how painful this must be.” While not every situation is the same, we all have or will experience emotional pain—including the searing sorrow associated with death. If we have not already experienced such loss, we can at least put ourselves in a similar position.
When Shouldn’t We Say Anything to Someone Who Is Grieving?
Some situations require wisdom and careful evaluation. As Proverbs 15:2 (NKJV) reminds us, “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, But the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.”
In Job’s situation, his companions initially joined in his pain—weeping, mourning, and sitting in the dust with their bereaved friend for the traditional number of days. They empathized both through their actions and silent presence. But when each man opened his mouth? Stinging words pierced Job as much as the lesions Satan inflicted upon him.
Job’s companions hoped to encourage and instead inflicted pain. To avoid adding to someone’s emotional distress, we should sometimes avoid saying anything. A few general guidelines to consider include the following:
- Knowing ourselves
- Knowing the bereaved
- Knowing the situation’s needs
Are we verbose or known to exaggerate? When a friend or family member experiences a difficult situation, do we tend to make comparisons? If so, it may be best to choose a different way to express care and concern.
Is the grieving individual an unknown colleague in a remote part of the building? Many of the personal statements listed in the previous section would seem disingenuous. At the same time, avoiding a coworker out of discomfort appears uncaring, while a group sympathy card or flowers might effectively communicate caring.
When heartache and loss are involved, we should err on the side of caution. As Aaron D’Anthony Brown wisely shares, “Less is often more, or in other words, the greater the grief, the less you say.”
How Can We Say Something with Actions to Someone Who Is Grieving?
When my friend lost her son, I hurt for her. One of my children had battled mental health issues, and my friend and I had been praying for each other. It was not difficult to imagine myself mourning at the graveside of my own child.
A few months after my girlfriend’s son died, she asked if I would like to participate in a suicide awareness walk as part of her son’s “team.” Her fresh, new pain poured out like water—sometimes like a brook filled with laughter as she spoke of favorite moments with Tucker. Other times, the raw ache came down as fierce as a summer storm—sudden and cathartic.
Even though I was invited to support a grieving companion through one specific action, other helpful actions include:
- Car maintenance
- Grocery shopping
- Meal preparation
- Sitting together
- Donating to a cause the deceased supported
What Is the Most Important Thing We Can Do For The Grieving?
In A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Michael Card writes, “And as His loving wisdom does with all things… God would redeem… sorrow, transforming it by means of His hesed into a pathway back to the loving-kindness of His Presence.”
We may provide some comfort to the bereaved through words of hope, acts of service, or listening. But praying regularly for—and, perhaps, with—the bereaved as we gently point them to the love of Christ is the pattern scripture provides.
Through prayer, we seek God’s intervention which is far more powerful than our own.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Drazen Zigic
Tammy Kennington is a writer and speaker familiar with the impact of trauma, chronic illness, and parenting in the hard places. Her heart is to lead women from hardship to hope. You can meet with Tammy at her blog www.tammykennington.com where she’ll send you her e-book, Moving from Pain to Peace-A Journey Toward Hope When the Past Holds You Captive.