We have all struggled with what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. Whether it be at the funeral, waiting to give our condolences, or an encounter with the bereaved at the store or at church, it can be challenging to offer words of comfort that don’t sound cliché or inadequate to our ears.
What can we say that will help this person in their grief and sorrow? Sometimes we are at a loss of how we can best help a friend in their season of grief. Too often, we don’t think much past the first few months after a death. But grief is a long and difficult journey, and our brothers and sisters in Christ need us to be there for them in this painful time. With What Grieving People Wish You Knew, Nancy Guthrie has written a practical guide for those who want to help their friends and family members who are grieving.
From someone who knows
Guthrie writes on the perspective of someone who has suffered profound loss, as two of her three children died in infancy. She has experienced firsthand the comfort that thoughtful words and caring deeds can bring, but also the well-meant comments that can unintentionally hurt. To write this book she questioned many grieving people via an online survey, asking them to provide concrete examples of what others had said or done that helped them in the midst of grief, and throughout the book she shares many of these testimonies.
Guthrie gives straightforward advice on what to say, what not to say, what to do, and what not to do. As you read the chapter “Typical Things People Say” (that miss the mark), you will probably cringe in the realization that you yourself have said some of these things, unaware how insensitive these words may sound to a person raw with grief.
“I know just how you feel” is one example. This statement, though well-meaning by trying to establish camaraderie through a similar experience, in essence minimizes the other’s loss by suggesting that their grief isn’t unusual, or unique.
“You’ll be fine” is another comment that sounds encouraging enough at face value, but, Guthrie notes, “what the grieving person hears you saying is that the person who died didn’t really matter enough for his or her absence to matter.” Ouch.
Or have you ever said “Just call me if you need something”? A grieving person is not going to call. They likely don’t even have the headspace to know what they need. A more helpful thing to do is figure out what can be done for them and then do it. Tell them that you’re going to mow their lawn, pick up their groceries, or help them with their taxes. This is putting into action your love and concern for them in their grief.
Even the simple question of “How are you?” can be a tough question for the bereaved to answer. It makes them feel put on the spot to give what is hopefully an acceptable report of how they are really doing.
“The grieving person knows what the questioner most likely wants to hear – that everything is getting better, the world is getting brighter, the darkness is lifting, and the tears are subsiding. But oftentimes that just isn’t the way it is, and it can be awkward to be honest about the confusion, listlessness, and loneliness of grief.”
Ways to comfort
What can we say instead? Guthrie’s survey revealed that there are two particular things that grieving people really want to hear from others, and they are closely connected.
First, they love to hear stories, anecdotes, or things that their loved one said or did that were meaningful, and the more specific the better.
Second, they want to hear the name of the person who died. “Oh, to hear that person’s name. It is like salve to an aching soul, music to a heart that has lost its song.” So, talk with them about their loved one who has passed on! Tell them about the special thing he did for you, the way she was always so encouraging, or the joke he told that you still laugh about. Don’t be uncomfortable about speaking the deceased’s name, for hearing it spoken will bring comfort to those who mourn.
Just show up!
Perhaps the most insightful chapter is the one entitled “Assumptions we make that keep us away.” Often people unconsciously distance themselves from the grieving for one reason or another – possibly we’re unsure of what to do or say, or feel we don’t know them well enough, or maybe we assume that the grieving just want to be left alone.
But, as Guthrie writes, “If I had to boil down the message of this entire book to just two words, these two would probably cover it: show up.” She encourages us to put aside any awkwardness we might feel and simply show up, and here again she offers many tangible ways of doing so.
Also really helpful is a section about heaven, briefly summarizing what the Bible teaches about it as well as tackling some common misconceptions. Guthrie brings forward the comfort and hope that believers possess, knowing they will be with Christ when they die. She also cautions not to assume the deceased is in heaven; in such cases where it seems unlikely she encourages readers to simply offer what they know to be true about God, rather than give false hope by going beyond what the Bible says. While Guthrie’s regard for and knowledge of Scripture is evident throughout the book, the notion of covenant seems to be missing in this section on heaven, specifically in regard to the eternal destiny of children who die. But this is a minor imperfection in a beautiful chapter that focuses on the richest comfort we can offer those who are grieving – the resurrection that is yet to come!
This is not an easy read. There is so much raw emotion written on its pages, in the countless examples of real people’s experiences of hurt, hope and healing. I found sometimes I had to put this book down for a while because reading about so many individuals’ sadness and pain became truly overwhelming. If you are anything like me you will probably shed more than a few tears, but you will also learn a lot, for this book will equip you with skills, words, and ideas “for being a balm of comfort to the grieving people in your world.”
I encourage you to read this book if you know someone who is grieving and you want to truly help them, to walk alongside them in their grief. And even if you don’t know someone who is grieving right now, some day you will. Reading this book will help you to help them in their time of need. I highly recommend it.
A version of this article first appeared in the July 15, 2017 issue of Una Sancta, a magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and it is reprinted here with permission. Below is a 20 minute video in which author Nancy Guthrie shares some of what she believes are the key points in her book “What Grieving People Wish You Knew.”