1. “How Are You?”
Well, that seems kind but what people need to understand is when you're going through grief and someone says, “How are you?” it feels like a burden, like you have to give a report and that what they really want to hear is, “I’m better than I was last time you talked to me.”
The thing is, maybe you're not. And it can be really uncomfortable to say, “I’m crying all the time, I don’t know how to stop,” or, “I think it's getting worse and not better,” or “I’m filled with fear about the future.” So, nobody wants to say that because they know you don’t really want to hear that and the conversation is going to get really weird.
2. “I guess God just needed another angel in heaven.”
To this one, sometimes I've actually said, “You know what? He just has all the angels he needs and my child didn’t become an angel. People don’t become angels.”
I’d probably just let that one go, though. They're just trying to come up with something to say to fill the awkwardness.” I’d take a deep breath and let that one go. But to all those who are listening, don’t say it. It's not helpful. It's not comforting.
3. “It must have been God’s will.”
Well you see, that term “God’s will,” it's complicated. It's weighted. Who in that moment of grief wants to have a big, heavy theological discussion? I think that’s why we shouldn’t say this to grieving people.
For one thing, we always have to think about not only what we're saying, but how the other person hears it. So, let say you're talking to someone whose loved one committed suicide. Do you say “It must have been God’s will” to them? That’s not comforting. That creates all kinds of questions. And so, the ways some people hear those things is, you know, “God wanted my mom to die in a car accident.”
There's a big difference, between someone dropping a line like this in a conversation and being a friend who comes alongside a grieving person and is willing and equipped to begin to understand what God is doing in the world. In that context, it could be appropriate to dive into Scripture or maybe read some good books together and to try to search out and understand God’s sovereignty over suffering in life. That’s very different. Come alongside the person and be willing to dig in to have a deeper conversation. Don’t use it as a trite line, but be willing to enter into that mystery with them. But also realize that you may not be the person they’re comfortable doing this with.
4. “What is God trying to teach you through this?”
You know what that does to somebody? It makes the person they loved an object lesson. It diminishes them. Now I got to tell you, you can't imagine how much I've learned through the death of my children. I am so grateful for the way the Lord has taught me so many things through their lives and through their deaths and through the experience.
I'm thinking about a couple who came to one of our retreats and the way that was put to them was, you know, they go kind of a health and wealth, word of faith kind of church and immediately it was, “Oh, the Lord is going to use you, you're going to have such a great ministry because of this.”
I mean, his son took his own life and immediately everybody is pressing into how the Lord is going to use them and their hurt was so deep and it diminished their loss. It made it a tool just to another end. And the thing is, God is going to continue to use that couple in significant ways. I just love them. But once again—I guess here's the general rule in terms of what we say.
There are a lot of things we can say that are true that we still don’t need to say. The question is, “Is it helpful?” The thing is, God is probably going to teach them something through it, but give them time.
There's a difference in what we say when we walk to the visitation line or a month later and what we say two years later or five years later. I mean, five years later, rather than never talking about it, you can actually honor them by asking the question at some point, “Wow, five years later, when you look back over this, what has the Lord taught you through this? How are you a different person now?” I mean, that’s just very different in the heart of it.
5. “Well, at least she's in a better place.”
Heaven can't be assumed for all who die, that those who are not in Christ, those who have not taken hold of Christ by faith can't anticipate leaving this life to be with Christ in his presence. But once again, there are things that are true that don’t have to be said right away. We don’t have to be out to correct people.
Now, maybe you're the kind of friend that down the road they would come to you and you would be a safe person that they could pour out their fears and their agonies about that. There are some people that we want to make ourselves available to and they don’t grab hold because we're not that person for them or we're not that kind of person yet. But we make ourselves available, we show compassion, and we maybe wait for them to reach out or maybe we drop a little note a couple of weeks, or six months, to let them know we’re thinking about them.
We don’t really know the spiritual reality of another person’s life. We might think we know but we don’t. Heaven should never be an assumption.
For more reading on this topic by Nancy Guthrie:
This post is adapted from WHI-1332: Comforting Those Who Grieve. Used with permission.