Helpful, Not Hurtful, Things to Say to People Who Are Grieving.
Death is part of our shared humanity. It is a connector of one human being to another. A connection most would prefer to avoid. I do not blame the people who do. I am tired of death being a companion in my life.
Beyond death being my companion, I am also a witness to grief. As a university chaplain, I have dealt with death frequently. I cannot count the number of funerals I have presided over or individuals I have met with who have lost a friend, student, co-worker, sibling, or parent. As a chaplain, I have worked with people who have lost someone due to accidents, neglect, murder, suicide, and natural causes.
When someone loses a loved one and shares that loss with us, it is not about us and our losses. It is about the other person. We are so used to dealing directly and intrusively with friends, family members, and co-workers that we continue this same pattern when the topic of death arises. However, the grieving person simply wants their grief witnessed, their pain acknowledged, and their sense of aloneness erased.
In my husband's first full-time pastorate, there was a young family with two children. Their babysitter died in a car wreck. The littlest child was around four years old and deeply loved her babysitter. Upon hearing her beloved friend was dead, the little girl cried and would not stop. Two hours into her crying, the parents called my husband, frantic in their need to help calm their daughter and ease their suffering. My husband asked me to go with him since I have a degree in counseling.
We walked into the family's home, and the little girl was inconsolable with grief. As we came in, I could hear others in the room asking the girl if she could stop crying. The child cried all the more. The family members were not being mean; they were grieving the loss of the babysitter and the four-year-old's extreme grief. It hurt them to watch the child be so broken.
I got down on the floor with the girl and told her it was okay to cry and be sad. I helped her name her feelings. I asked her brother and parents to share how they felt about the babysitter's death so the child would know their brokenness too. We also talked about other things, and the tears continued to flow, and then they stopped. The little girl needed her grief witnessed, her pain acknowledged, and her sense of aloneness erased. Telling her to stop crying did none of those things.
If we look at the scriptures, Job was a man who had a thorough understanding of grief. A man who lost everything he had and all of his children in one fell swoop. Job's friends showed up and appeared to be the epitome of support - well, at least until they started to speak. Job rebuffed them, and in Job 19:2, he stated, "How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?" (ESV) We can take an unbearable situation and make it worse with our words. However, our words should be a fountain of life, as in Proverbs 10:11.
Talking to someone who is losing or has lost someone requires a shift of mind—a setting aside of yourself to be fully present with the grieving individual. Honestly, it would be appropriate for you to be more like a counselor with a client. In a counselor/client relationship, there is care and concern for the client. Still, there is a sense of detachment as well—an air of being an observer instead of emotionally involved. While emotions can be wondrous, our feelings often prompt us to say or do things unhelpful to someone in the grieving process.
While most individuals do not have a counseling background, the great thing is with God on your side and some common sense, you can become more skilled. Isaiah 50:4 states, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are instructed to know how to sustain the weary with a word. He awakens me each morning; He awakens my ear to listen like those being instructed." (HCSB) When we ask God to help us know what to say to someone hurting and broken, God shows up and guides us. Look at Moses, Aaron, or the disciples. God provided for them, and He will do the same for us.
Lest you doubt, whenever I meet with an individual grieving or going through a traumatic situation, I always ask God to help me truly hear the individual and know what to say. God has always given me words. So, remember to pray. God knows what He is doing.
With all of this in mind, I will start with what I deem to be the most straightforward task. When a grieving person says what they need or doesn't need, listen and follow along appropriately. For example, recently, one of my friends let me know via a chat that his brother had passed away. He asked for a virtual hug. I didn't say I was sorry or I would be praying for you, as he didn't ask for my condolences or prayers. He asked for a virtual hug. I sent him a gif of a virtual hug. Grieving individuals often say what they need or don't, and we simply need to respond.
More difficult is what not to say. There are as many opinions on what not to say as there are words in our language. Here is a brief summary. Typically, people say inappropriate things because they are uncomfortable, think they know what is best for the grieving person, some believe the grieving person's situation is better than their own, others want to know details of the death, or they aren't concerned about the individual at all and care about how the situation affects their own self.
Take a moment to ponder these various scenarios and think back to when you were with grieving individuals. Did you feel uncomfortable, and what to change the subject? Did you want all the gory details of the death? Did you think about yourself? Did you try to "fix" the situation? Knowing where you tend to err helps in correcting the problem. For example:
If you feel uncomfortable, don't say:
You will get over it.
They are in a better place.
They aren't suffering anymore.
Focus on all the fun you had together.
Let's talk about something else.
If you know it all, don't say:
It was God's will.
You will get over it eventually.
God needed another angel.
Aren't you overreacting?
Everything happens for a reason.
It was their time.
It was their fault they died.
If you deem your grief experience as worse, don't say:
At least ____ went fast, unlike when my ____ died.
At least you have your health; I was in the hospital when ___ passed away.
You can still have more kids.
If you are a lover of details, don't say:
How did they die?
What did you do after you found out about ____ passing?
When did they die?
Tell me all about their planning. Did they have everything in order before they died?
If you are always thinking about how events affect you, don't say:
When will you be back to normal?
I miss the way we used to spend time together before ___ died.
I know how you feel.
I don't know how you handle this; I would be a mess.
My ____ died that way too.
As a chaplain, a lot of times, I will mirror back what the individual has said. For example, after listening to someone, I might say, "In listening to you, you mentioned your mutual love of nature and going on hiking trips. It sounds like being outdoors together was a blessing for you both." Or, "Listening to you, it seems as if ___ was a true caretaker of his family." Mirroring helps people feel heard and that I understand what they are saying.
Instead of speaking a statement, we should ask a question. I ask a lot of questions when I am with grieving individuals. Asking questions is the hardest thing to do, and with all my training, I still need more training. However, as one of my coaches told me, questions will naturally arise if you listen hard enough to what a person is saying. For example:
When people tell you about their loved one's passing, ask:
What would be most helpful to you in our time together?
Thank you for sharing. What makes it essential to share with me?
When individuals talk about their loved one's passing and say they don't know who they are any more or what they should be doing.
Who do you want to be?
What do you want to do?
When individuals talk about being filled with anger, ask:
Why are you angry?
How is your anger helping you?
When a person says, everyone expects them to be over the death by now, but they aren't ready.
How will you know when you are ready?
When an individual says losing a loved one was more challenging than they thought.
What makes it more complicated than you thought?
I miss him so much.
What do you miss about him?
Asking questions removes our natural human tendency to want to fix a situation. Death is a situation that we cannot fix, no matter how hard we try. The best thing we can do for others is be there for them how they need us to be. We all make mistakes with individuals who are grieving. The trick is to learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.
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