10 things you should never say to a grieving person

November 16th, 2014

Having come to know grief on a personal level over the last few years, I’ve learned that when it it is time to comfort a grieving person, people just do not know what to say or do. We sort of stutter around and try to navigate the awkwardness of it all because, in most of our lives, we just try to hide grief or deny it. So when we’re undeniably confronted with it – at a funeral, in the face of a friend who lost a child, in the announcement of a terminal illness – we simply don’t have the skills to navigate with wisdom.

This lack of skill leads us to say all kinds of things that seem wise, but are often just attempts to assuage our own discomfort. So in this post I will relay to you a number of things you should avoid saying to grieving people. I’m going to be direct and even a bit cynical at points. But I really want to get my point across.

I know how you feel.

No, actually, you don’t know how I feel. Even if you’ve lost your dad, you didn’t lose my dad. Even if you lost your nephew, you didn’t lose my nephew. The fact is, your situation may be similar on the surface, but relationship is what makes each similar situation so vastly distinct. My love for my dad may have been like every son’s love for his father, but the particularities of our relationship – both good and bad – make my love for him unique, and make your love for your father unique. Yes, you may know the pain of losing a father. And that pain may have some overlap with my pain. But our pains are unique to the people and memories we lost. So, no, you don’t know how I feel.

God has a will in this. / There is a reason for everything. / God is in control.

I’ve heard it said before that you should never utter something about God that you can’t say while standing before the gates of Auschwitz. I take that even further, never utter something about God that you can’t say to parents who lost a child.

To tell parents that “there is a reason for everything” or that “God has a will in this” implies that God did this to them. To tell Jews in a concentration camp that “God is in control” implies that God did this to them.

Unless you believe that God is killing children or empowering the Nazis, then you’d better just avoid these phrases altogether.

Can God bring good out of evil? Yes. Absolutely. But that is a very different thing than saying that God is controlling evil and causing it to happen. It’s a very different thing than saying that God has a reason he’s taken kids from their parents.

How are you doing?

This is a difficult thing to tell you not to say because, at its heart, it does show compassion. It realizes that instead of pithy proverbs, the best thing to do is ask a question.

However, the nature of this question is what makes it off-limits. The question assumes the person has processed their feelings enough to be able to articulate them. The question assumes, as well, that not only have they processed their feelings, but that they want to talk about their feelings with you.

Further, grief is so multifaceted that when you ask me how I’m doing, I honestly don’t know how to answer the question. How I’m doing depends on the moment (grief comes in waves), and that means a given moment in which you ask me the question may solicit a different answer than if you asked me an hour later.

The question is also so open-ended that when you ask me, I don’t really know how to answer. And because I have such mixed feelings, such waving grief, and because I know I’m going to have trouble articulating the complexities of it all, I’ll probably settle for an easy answer (easy for both of us): I’m fine. I’m good. I’m okay. You asked a simple question to get at a complex problem. So I offer an easy answer. And the question never really gets answered.

He’s in a better place.

First of all, you don’t know this. The eternal condition of any human being is not for me and you to know with any kind of surety. This line is often thrown about with the assumption that everyone gets to go to a better place just because. We know too little of the afterlife and we know too little of people’s disposition toward the afterlife to warrant our confidence that everyone is simply in a better place.

Nevertheless, even if we have a lot of confidence that someone is in eternal bliss, the fact is, God designed us to be earth dwellers. Made from the dust of the ground, humanity is an earth-bound, earth-loving creature. Our best place, the place for which we were created is right here.

What we mean by “a better place” is that these people are in the presence of God and are no longer suffering. That’s fine. And I’m good with that. But I find it hard to believe, given how we were created, that heaven is better than earth, or that people are closer to God because they’re “in heaven.” No, in biblical theology, heaven and earth are together and God is here in this place.

You can have another child. / At least you have other kids.

First, of all, you don’t know that a mother/father who just lost a child can have other kids. You can’t know this. So that, in itself, ought to disqualify such a comment.

But more specifically, the comment is insensitive in that it attempts to distract the parent’s pain by providing an opiate alternative. Is the ability to have children automatically supposed to make the loss of this child somehow more manageable or better? No. It wouldn’t. It doesn’t. So let’s stop saying this one too.

God just wanted another angel.

Not only is this statement theologically wrong (people don’t turn into angels when they die; they remain people), but the more dangerous theological assumption in this comment is that God is somehow involved in the taking of a child from parents. That God selfishly wanted this child to be present with him so he snatched them from the parents to whom he gave the child not too long ago.

What does such a thing actually say about the character of God? What kind of God gives children to parents and parents to children to take them back after a short period of time simply because He wanted to be with the kid?

And might I point out a third theological problem? The statement assumes a strict dichotomy between heaven and earth – a birfurcation or division that is foreign to the biblical writers. To the writers of Scripture, God is just as present with us here on earth as he is in heaven. The Spirit of God indwells God’s people, in particular. This means that God doesn’t need another angel, or another person because he’s lonely or something. God is present with us.

Children were made for earth. They were not made to be angels. They were not made for heaven. They were made to be creatures reflecting the image of God. They were not, in fact, meant to die. And to place such silly reasoning – God needed another angel – at the feet of God is to completely misunderstand the character of God.

It was his time to go.

I’m not really sure what this means, especially in the face of accidental death or death by disease. If a person dies a nice, peaceful death in old age, then maybe I could understand such a statement. But nice, old-aged, peaceful deaths are not generally what we refer to as “tragedy.” In the case of genuine tragedies, part of the pain is precisely that it was not the persons time to go. They were taken early. They were taken against their will by a disease or an accident. To tell grieving people that it was their loved one’s “time to go” is actually not only dismissive of their pain, it’s also objectively, verifiably wrong.

You have to be strong for X…

This gets said too much to grieving people. It places the burden of “bucking up” and pretending everything’s okay on a person precisely at the time when nothing is okay.

As if a person doesn’t feel enough pain, experience enough pressure, we are now telling them that their grieving loved ones are going to be worse off if they don’t “get themselves together” and pretend like everything is okay and normal.

Let’s get this straight. What we’re really asking these people to do is lie. We’re asking them to pretend that they are in a reality of daisies and sunshine when all around them there are gravestones and darkness. And we’re asking them to lie for the sake of their loved ones, but who are we to assume we know anything about what their loved ones actually need? Maybe their loved ones need to see grief and vulnerability modeled. Maybe the last thing they need is someone else trying to pretend like things are okay when they so clearly are not.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

How do you know God never gives us more than we can handle?

Seriously. How do you know that?

Did you read that in Scripture somewhere? Did you see it on a bumper sticker? Did God come down and tell you that?

Because from everything I know about God, two things are absolutely clear:

God does not “give” tragedy to people. God does not cause evil. A God who causes evil (for testing or because he needs another angel) is an evil God. I understand that there is a more nuanced philosophical discussion that could happen here, but at the root of it, I will always insist that God never be the cause of evil.

The second thing I’m clear about when it comes to God is that God is always allowing people to find themselves in situations that are bigger than they can handle. That’s the nature of learning to trust God and understand God’s loving care for us – it’s all bound up in the idea that when we are out of control, God is still sovereign and still working the waves and the darkness and death into something, not that we can control, but something that can be redeemed.

So, no, on all accounts, this statement misses the point and should be avoided, as well.

Is there anything I can do for you?

This question often comes from a good place. Unlike many of the comments and clichés above, this question at least focuses on the needs of the grieving person instead of the discomfort of the person voicing the trite comments.

Nevertheless, I advise avoiding this question because it isn't specific enough. When you ask me if there is anything you can do for me, the options are too many. I may be too overwhelmed by everything I need to tell you only one thing, so I’ll opt for saying, “No, I’m fine.”

Think about it like this: When many of you went to church on Sunday you were handed a bulletin. It probably had so many announcements and events on it that your eye wasn’t drawn to any one of them. Because of how many there were, you probably didn’t read any of them… unless the sermon was just that bad.

The same thing can happen at restaurants. When there are too many choices on a menu, I can get overwhelmed and instead of choosing something specific that is unique to the restaurant, I'll often just fall back on chicken strips. All because there are so many options.

When a person is grieving, there are so many things they need – even things they need that they’re not aware of yet. Instead of asking the general question, find out through the grapevine what their specific needs are and then ask them, “Can I do X for you? Or do you have someone else doing it?” If they have something else specific for you to do, they can tell you at that time, “No, someone else is doing that, but could you do Y for me?”

In the end, most of the silly things we say to grieving people could be avoided if we simply keep our mouths shut. Silence is better than stupidity, I think. In some of these sayings, we mean well, but the sayings don’t effectively communicate our concern. In others of these, we’re not really concerned about the grieving person, we’re concerned with our own discomfort. So, really, if in this post I took away your “go-to” sayings, always know that the grieving person doesn’t need you to solve anything. A hug will do just fine. If Jesus is right and God blesses those who mourn, then the last thing we need to do is be a curse to them by saying things that are more hurtful than helpful.

Your turn: Is there anything you would add to this list? Have you ever had someone say these things to you? How did you respond? Have you ever said these things to anyone? How did they respond?

Follow-up: 10 things you *should* say to a grieving person

Tom Fuerst blogs at Tom1st.com. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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