What to Say When Someone You Know is Grieving

People are really trying to do the best they can. Here's what happens with people. So, they hear about whatever your situation is: maybe it's your divorce, maybe it's a terminal diagnosis, maybe it's a death of someone.

They start—their brains work like a computer. It's on a search for a match. Because what they want to do is they want to express, I get this, I know something about this, and I care about this, right? Then something comes up, ding, ding, ding, there's a match, if I know someone who had this happen. And so, what they often tend to do is start telling you the story about somebody else they know, you know, whose child died or somebody else who had the same thing happen to them.

The thing is when you are filled with so much anxiety, you don’t have room for anybody else’s story. So, it's just natural that your brain is going to that surge and, ding, a match comes up.

Ask Meaningful Questions

I’ve done it too, but what I tell people is when the match comes up is: Don’t say it. I know it’s really hard not to but instead, ask meaningful questions. So, a question we tend to ask people in the midst of something like this – and once again, I've done this too. You go up to someone who’s working through something and say, “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.” And 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.

Be More Specific Than “How Are You?”

So, rather than asking a question like, “How are you?” I suggest to people, for example, when you come upon someone you know who has had a loss, and it doesn’t just have to be a recent loss. We kind of generally around people think after a month or so, maybe we shouldn’t ask about it, but the thing is everybody stops asking about it.

And grieving people, you know, six months later, a year later, two years later, they're thinking everybody’s forgotten, nobody ever brings it up anymore. So to go up to that person and rather than saying, “How are you?” maybe you say, elongate that a bit and say, “What’s your grief like these days?” Or maybe it's a question like, “Are there particular times of the day or the week that you really miss Joseph?” and you see what I did there, I used the person’s name. That’s another really important thing to do when you're talking to someone who’s grieving.

Say Their Name

And keep saying that person’s name, the one who died. I mean, think about it, if you’ve got someone in your house and you're saying, “Hey, Joe, it's time for breakfast!” that you're hearing this person’s name all the time. And then not only is the person gone, everybody feels awkward saying his name.

And this is a person you love. And so, for someone to come up to you and say, “You know what, we went out for barbeque last week and I just remember when we used to go to that barbeque place and Sam loved to go there with us. Remember how we’d always get the –” So, do you know how much better that is than “How are you?” It says you're not the only person who’s missing him and you're not the only person who’s thinking about him. I'm thinking about him. Now here's a thing, Mike. I think one reason we don’t tend to do that with people we know who had a loss, is we think to ourselves, we look over, we see that person, and maybe they're smiling that day and so we think to ourselves, you know what, I think he or she is having a good day and I don’t want to bring them down. If I bring this up, maybe that’s just going to ruin their day. And so, since they seem happy today, I'm not going to bring it up. That is a very wrong assumption.

I mean, when someone has the courage, and it takes courage and compassion, it takes getting out of ourselves, to approach you, maybe it does seem like a good day and just say, “You know, I've been thinking about Pam so much this last couple of weeks and I drive by your house and I wonder what it's like for you to be there alone. I'm just wondering what that’s like for you these days.” And then maybe that person begins to weep a little bit and you think, “I have blown it. I shouldn’t have brought it up. They were having a good day.”

Wrong. What you’ve done, all of that sorrow is inside and what you’ve done is you’ve been a safe person to be able to release some of that deep sorrow that’s inside, begging to be released and need to come out. You’ve actually given them a great gift by being willing to enter into their sorrow and by just asking more about it.

This post is adapted from WHI-1332: Comforting Those Who Grieve. Used with permission.

Photo of Nancy Guthrie

Nancy Guthrie

Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and at conferences worldwide. She and her husband, David, are the cohosts of the GriefShare video series used in more than 10,000 churches nationwide and also host Respite Retreats for couples who have experienced the death of a child. Guthrie is also the host of Help Me Teach the Bible, a podcast of the Gospel Coalition.

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