What to say and what not to say to those grieving

For a number of years I struggled to know what to say at funerals, particularly in receiving lines. I actually wrote a poem entitled, when words are shallow, because of that struggle.

As we have gone through the passing of my mother it has been interesting to experience and observe how uncomfortable we as believers can be with death. And I’ve come to realize many of us don’t know what to say in times of difficulty.

One caveat before I write more. We have been incredibly blessed by so many people, which I have shared in previous posts. So, even when some didn’t know what to say and others said things that were not as helpful as intended, the overall care we received from our friends and church were great. But I am trying to learn from my own experience what doesn’t help and what does help.

Personal lessons

What can I do, when I’m the one grieving, to help others?

Be real–don’t try to hide hurt
Be open–people don’t know how to deal with other people’s grief; they take their cues from me
Be humble and grateful–let people do things for me, they care and want to help
Be verbal–detail what I need

What is not helpful to those who are grieving?

Don’t make it about yourself

“I’m sorry for your loss, I…”
“I’m sorry for your loss, I lost…”

Don’t try to equate it to your experience

“I know what you are going through, I…”

These first two are natural, but at the point of loss, it isn’t helpful to hear about the pain of another. That may be helpful later in the process when they are seeking to learn and move forward.

Don’t start giving advice too soon

“I’m sorry for your loss, you know you should…”
“I’m sorry for your loss, I learned that…”

Each person will grieve differently–so particularly early in the process, advice sounds hollow no matter how true it may be.

Don’t treat them as if they were broken

If you are going to hug, hug; they won’t break
Don’t get a sad expression on your face every time you see them

Don’t bring it up every time you see them

Let them bring it up if they want

Don’t expect them to get over it–quickly

Your life will return to normal quickly; their life may be changed forever.

They have a new normal that may take some time to adjust to;
don’t forget to care for them weeks or months after they experience loss.

Most will respond right way; support over the long haul is needed. This may take putting a note on your calendar.

The most common question that people ask–“how are you?”–may be a more difficult question than you intend.
Asking “how are you?” is such a normal question to ask; we often ask it before we even think. But when one has recently faced a loss and it is the primary thing others ask, it may be a bit much.

There isn’t always a good answer
They may not know what to say
It changes from moment to moment

If they want to share their feelings and hurt, they will.  But often they are left responding as if on autopilot–“Okay” or “Managing.”

A better question might be, “How was your day?”

What can I do to be helpful when someone is grieving?

The level of engagement should correspond to the level of relationship.
Those who are closer relationally will be able to do more–that is why establishing relationship prior to loss is so important.

Do focus on them
Do be there, but give them the space they need
Do offer to help with details
Do offer to make a meal–the mundane or routine things of life can be overwhelming
Do support them with prayer and kindness not volume of words
Do tell them specifically what you are praying for–not just that you are praying (though that is also an encouragement)

Knowing someone is praying for comfort or strength for the graveside or memorial service is wonderfully encouraging
Knowing that someone is praying for God’s grace, peace and hope is a faithful reminder and provides kind perspective

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