This is the fourth in a series of posts answering questions about death that I am frequently asked as a pastor. Previous posts involve death, the dead, and final arrangements.
This week: what do you say to someone whose world has fallen apart? How can you find the right words – and how can you avoid saying the wrong thing – for someone struggling with grief?
Grief Is Awkward
Encountering the grief of another is an odd thing. We go to a funeral or visitation to “pay our respects.” We want to honor a family member, a friend, or the family member of a friend, but doing so brings us face to face with something none of us want to have to face. So we get all dressed up, we make ourselves go there, and then when we see the person in grief, we try desperately to think of something to say to make things better, or at least a little less uncomfortable. Unfortunately, nothing sounds right – and everything feels uncomfortable.
Because death is not a good thing. And in spite of what we tell ourselves, it is not just a natural part of life. The death of a loved one leaves a hole in your life, and it changes everything. And just the simple act of facing someone else’s death brings you face-to-face with your own mortality, which terrifies most of us.
And we can’t help thinking selfishly upon the death of someone else – we mourn for what we have lost, or we feel relieved that it wasn’t someone we love or care about more. We feel awful for the person in grief, but we are thankful we are not them. And those feelings are accompanied by the feeling of shame – because we have those thoughts.
So, we double down on the awkwardness and start to talk, in an attempt to fix things…
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.(Multiple attributions)
Seriously, it is far better to feel awkward by yourself than to say something awkward and invite others to the party. It is perfectly okay to say nothing. Your presence means so much more than anything you could say in that moment.
Stop Trying to Fix It.
There are no magic words to make someone’s pain go away, as much as you might want to find them. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Don’t speak. Don’t do it. Bite your tongue. Chew some gum. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself from saying that thing in your mind that you think you just have to say. You don’t. So don’t.
No, Really. Don’t Say Anything.
I know you want to. You want to make it all better, or at least less awkward. But some of the most well-meaning things people say to those struggling with grief are so much more hurtful that you might realize. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly spoken phrases to those who are grieving:
At least s/he’s in a better place.
While that might be theologically true in one sense, it discounts the fact that the person who misses them would still rather have them here, with them, regardless of what heaven is like. Yes, it’s selfish, but now is hardly the time to teach a lesson to someone who is struggling to come to terms with a hole in their heart.
It also denies the theological truth that death is a bad thing. And even though the deceased is now free from the troubles of this life, it doesn’t change the fact that they had to pass through death to be there, and God sent Jesus to conquer death because life on earth is a precious gift.
We rejoice with you that s/he is in heaven.
This is, of course, related to the phrase above, but it adds a religious component so that it sounds more holy. I have heard pastors and pastors’ wives say this more than anyone else.
Just stop. Stop! We do not rejoice that the deceased person is no longer living!* That is the antithesis of what we believe! We may be thankful that the person’s struggles have come to an end, and we may even be happy for the deceased that they are now with the Lord, but do not – under any circumstances – force the concept of joy on someone who has just had their life changed forever by the loss of someone they hold most dear. The Lord does not rejoice over their grief, He comforts them in their sorrow. You should think about doing the same.
I guess God just needed him/her more than we did.
Speaking of selfish, how dare you make a value judgment about how much the grieving person needed their lost loved one! And this one is absolutely, positively, undeniably theologically FALSE. God isn’t lonely in heaven, nor is He so selfish as to take someone from this life – where He put them in the first place – so that He can have them in heaven. No.
Biblically, God sent Jesus to conquer death so that all those who die in the faith would not stay dead, but would be in His presence until the resurrection of all flesh – which means that they are not yet to their final destination, even though they are with Him. They are not fully whole until they are reunited with their body once more. The goal of God’s plan is for all believers to be together in the new heavens and new earth, not to be separated as we are now.
Actions speak louder than words
Don’t speak, just be. Be there for them. Stand beside them. Give them a hug. Listen to them. Cry with them. but don’t try and fix it, because you can’t. Just acknowledge their grief and be there for them. I promise you it is the most meaningful thing you can do.
Don’t limit your presence to the funeral or visitation
The days spanning the visitation and funeral are difficult, but bearable – because you have details to focus on and the support of those who come to help you keep grief somewhat at bay.
It is the days, weeks, months and years that follow which are the most difficult. You are left alone in your grief. You have to navigate birthdays, holidays and the quiet times by yourself. You aren’t prepared for all of the things that come flying at you from nowhere that remind you of your loss. You aren’t prepared for the feelings of hopelessness and purposelessness that surround you. And perhaps for the first time in your life even, you understand what it means to lose the will to live, even if you don’t actually want your life to end.
At first, you hate being asked how you’re doing, but after a while, people stop asking – and you desperately wish someone would just ask again. People are scared to say your loved one’s name, because they are afraid of making you sad. They don’t understand that you are nearly always sad, and the tears that come in that moment are a welcome relief from feeling like you’ve cried as much as you could possibly cry. They don’t know how much you believe you are the only one who still misses your loved one, as though everyone else has forgotten or moved on, simply because they do not talk about your loved one.
So reach out to the person who suffered loss and help. Don’t say, “If you need anything, just ask,” because they never will. They won’t do it. So you ask. Or better yet, don’t ask, just bring them dinner or take them out to lunch. And don’t be upset if they don’t seem appreciative – it just might be where they are in their grief. Send a card or a note. Tell them you’re still thinking of them and how much you miss their loved one. It might seem selfish for you to tell them about your grief, but it’s not – they will appreciate knowing you miss their loved one, too.
Don’t speak, just be there. And after the funeral is over, then speak. But don’t try to make it all better or convince them that they are doing better than they are, just be a friend. Love them enough to listen. Care enough to care enough.
Can Someone Who Takes Their Own Life Go To Heaven?
Note: Some of you will undoubtedly point out that Paul asks the Philippians to rejoice with him if he is to die, but this is far different than you telling someone who is grieving that they should be joyful. If the Son of God wept over his friend’s death, so may we.