10 things you *SHOULD* say to a grieving person

November 30th, 2014

My post a few days ago, “10 things you should never say to a grieving person,” sparked a lot of discussion, both affirming and challenging to my ten points. Most people were grateful for the list, as it helps them know exactly what clichés to avoid at funerals or in the presence of a grieving friend.

A number of concerned people, however, noted that the post is largely negative — that is, it tells us what not to say, but doesn’t tell us what we can say.

And while I appreciate the criticism, I think it really gets at the heart of why the original post was needed. But let me tell a brief story first.

The pain doesn't go away

My dad died in a motorcycle accident six years ago. Only 50 years old, he left behind four adult children. Obviously, the news of the accident obliterated us, leaving us all reeling and disoriented. It was the first major death any of us had ever dealt with. At 28 years old, you’re still supposed to have two to three more decades with your dad. Barely into adulthood, I didn’t realize how much I still felt like a child until my dad was gone.

No goodbye.

No “I love you.”

Just gone.

Predictably, at his funeral endless people, all with good intentions, tried to say consoling things. I realized then and there that I hated the funeral visitation line. The whole experience of having people come through line and feel like they just have to say something to you is awkward and deflating.

I came to wonder, not for the last time, if people really think there’s a magic set of words that can just solve my “problem.” Do people really think that they’re going to be able to string together the right combination of syllables and somehow make my dad’s death less tragic?

Surely they don’t.

But it seemed a lot of folks sure were giving their best effort at it. As if, maybe by saying the right thing my dad would come up out of the grave like Lazarus.

In the midst of all the mini-counseling sessions, there was, however, one man who came up to me and said something I will never forget. If you’ve got to say anything at all to a grieving person, learn something from him.

Without an ounce of discomfort or awkwardness, most likely because he wasn’t trying to solve my problem, an elderly gentleman named Charlie came up to me. A few years before, he’d lost his wife to cancer and still grieved her death as he tried to manage survival day after day without her.

In all the wisdom that comes along with that kind of grief, Charlie put his arms around me, hugged me, then looked into my eyes and said, “The pain doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it.”

That was the most truthful, brutally honest, beautiful thing anyone had said to me all day. I was tired of tired, canned answers.

I was tired of people trying to snap me out of grief with their clichés. This man spoke unadulterated truth — this sucks. It’s going to suck forever. The only hope in it is that you learn to live with it. Or, in the words of Andrew Peterson, “The aching may remain, but the breaking does not.”

Here’s the point…

This man was able to speak such direct truth to me precisely because he knew it firsthand. He didn’t need to make up for his own insecurities by settling for a cheap word. No, he knew something of the pain, he knew something of the fruitlessness of answers in that moment, and he knew what could be said and what shouldn’t be said.

And maybe that’s the problem with much of our conduct at funerals. For many Americans, we spend so much time avoiding suffering that we don’t know what to do when it stares us in the face. We don’t know what to say. Or, more telling, we don’t know that most of us just shouldn’t say anything at all.

When I wrote my original post, I had endless well-meaning people say, “Why didn’t you write 10 things you should say to a grieving person?”

But the question, well-intentioned as it may be, misses the point entirely. We do not have to say anything at all. In fact, most of us shouldn’t say anything.

Silence is holy and healing

Since when is silence in the face of tragedy not a good option? Since when do we have to fill every moment with words?

It is a very culturally American thing to feel like you have to talk all the time. Our culture knows as much about silence as it does about grieving, which is to say nothing. We can’t be alone with our thoughts on the best of days, let alone on the worst of days. We feel this addictive need to talk, speak, yell, whisper, offer and blather, all because we have no idea how to be silent. We have no idea that silence can, in fact, be holy. And silence is almost never inappropriate.

There is something to be learned from Job’s friends in this regard. After he lost his family, Job’s friends showed up and for three full days they said absolutely nothing. Their silence was the sound of love and reverence for Job’s grief. It was not until they started speaking that they started making mistakes. They wanted to solve Job’s grief, give a reason for it, offer a divine perspective on it. But Job, who, unlike many grievers, had the wherewithal to argue back, denied their stupid answers and and faulty assumptions regarding both what he needed and the very character of the God they assumed they knew.

You just look like you needed a hug

Let me illustrate the appropriateness and holiness of silence with one other brief story from my dad’s death. Shortly after dad’s funeral, in central Missouri, I had to return to Lexington, Kentucky, to resume my seminary studies. With my heart still beating off-rhythm, with grief still a dirty film on my soul, I walked back onto campus, eyes low, hoping not to make eye contact with anyone. I was tired of people. I was tired of answers.

In fact, I planned my trip to campus at a time when I knew classes were already in session. I planned to be late to class precisely so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. So when I walked on campus, the courtyard was empty.

Well, it was empty except for one, lone figure, a Jeremiah Aja.

Jeremiah was some distance from me walking in a different direction. But when he saw me, he yelled my name and started walking right toward me. Admittedly, I was leery of what was coming. But when he got right up to me, he simply put his arms around me and held me tightly for a few seconds. Then he said, “You just looked like you needed a hug.” He then turned and walked away.

To most people who think they need a quick, home run cliché to solve people’s grief problems, this may actually seem like an anti-climactic story.

But to those who know grief, and know it cannot be solved easily, you will understand why this is a moment I will likely never forget. Nothing profound was said. Nothing profound was done. There was a hug. A recognition of my need. And a refusal to try to make things better.

Jeremiah did the right thing. I think we could learn a lot from his simplicity.

In the end, I cannot tell people specific things to say to their grieving friends. Why? Because the things you say and do are always caught up in your relationship 1) with the person who is grieving, and 2) your relationship with grief, itself (have you ever deeply grieved?). The appropriateness of your words and actions only makes sense in light of how well you know the grieving person, and how well you know what is hurting them.

I don’t mean this to be a cop-out answer. It would be nice if there were 10 things you should say to a grieving person. But that’s just not reality.

But silence is never a bad option. Silence is healing. Silence is holy.

So what should we say?

For those of you who will be disappointed if you don’t get more practical advice, here are some general thoughts on what should happen when you come face to face with grief.

First, keep in mind that there is no magical thing you can say to make a grieving person feel better. Nothing. You could find the best thing in the world to say and it still will not undo all the pain.

Second, instead of focusing on what you should say, focus instead of listening to them (if they want to talk). Don’t force them to talk, but if they want to, don’t offer grieving advice. Rather, use “active listening skills.” That is, keep asking questions that lead back to their feelings, not yours, their story, not yours.

After listening to their story, you can say, “So, when X happened, you felt Y?” That will invite them to talk about their feeling as much or as little as they want.

When I counsel with people, that is often what I spend most of my time doing: “When X happened, you felt Y?” That often sparks more talking on their part, it lets them explore their own feelings, and it also lets them correct you if “Y” wasn’t exactly what they were feeling.

All of this is good precisely because it allows them to do 99% of the talking, while you just have to listen and ask questions … concrete, specific, emotional questions, not general questions.

Third, if they don’t want to talk, that’s okay. They’re not going to blame you if it’s awkward — they know it’s awkward for you, because their whole lives are awkward right now. So be okay with it being awkward. Don’t try to solve the awkwardness. After all, the awkward is about your feelings, and you want to keep focused on theirs.

Fourth, ask tangible, practical questions. What are the things you need me to do for you at work while you’re out? Are there errands I can run for you? Can I shop for you? What are foods you like? (Seriously, if you’re going to put together a “make them a meal” community plan, for God’s sake avoid pasta! Grieving people get tired of pasta!) Offer to do specific things for them so they can focus on other things, unless of course, they want the mental break. After all, sometimes doing normal chores can be healing because it gives you a sense of equilibrium to do something so mundane.

Fifth, as I said above, if you don’t feel wise enough to talk with them, or if you don’t feel close enough with them, just go be with them. DO NOT AVOID THEM. Hug them, ask them a few questions about tangible things you can do for them, pray with them if they’re up for it, and let them know you will continue to pray for them. Then leave. It’s okay.

Sixth, send them texts/emails/cards, etc. over the coming months, on the anniversary of their loss, on the birthday of the person they lost, etc. One thing people forget is that grieving people rarely forget the day a tragedy happened, even if the rest of the world forgets that day. If you want to help someone, don’t forget that day, even if you have to write it in your calendar.

Seventh, understand that many people will be wrestling deeply with their faith during a time of grief. And that is okay. God is in their grief. God is suffering with them. Their hearts are raw and God is working with that. Don’t short-circuit their grief or their questions by cheap answers to eternal questions. Besides, even if you did have the perfect answer from God, would that somehow make their grief less tragic? I don’t think it would.

Instead, when tough questions about the faith arise, put your arm around them and simply say, “I don’t know what is happening here. But I know that God’s heart breaks with yours.” Your theological answer doesn’t have to be any deeper than that. God suffers with them. God knows grief. He lost a child once.

The time of grief is not necessarily the wisest time for your theological musings. Rather, it is time for you to be God-with-skin-on, being his hands and feet and embracing arms. You don’t need to be his mouthpiece.

I hope this provided the tangible assistance many of you were looking for. Though, as I said, I think the best option is holy, reverential silence.

Your turn: Do you have any advice from your own experience of grief? Do you have any stories of people who handled your grief well? 

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

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