Perhaps you recently went to the local funeral home to share your condolences when a friend’s spouse or parent died. You might have felt uncomfortable because you didn’t know what to say.
As a member of the clergy, I have conducted, and attended, hundreds of funeral services. I have heard people say some hope-filled words during these occasions, but I have also heard people say some awful things.
“He (or she) is in a better place.” You don’t know; only God does. The problem with these words is that the grieving person wants that deceased loved one here, with him or her now, no matter how difficult the past weeks or months might have been.
Better: “I know you miss him (or her).” These words show that you are aware of the pain.
“I know how you feel.” Actually, you don’t. Sure, you might have lost someone by death, but remember that each person’s experience of grief and sadness is different. No two griefs are the same.
Better: “I have been thinking about you a lot. I hurt for you.” These words show that you do have some awareness of the pain, that in some way, you do have some understanding of the pain.
“It was God’s will” or “It’s what God intended.” This statement can make a person feel angry. The grieving person might think, “I don’t think God had anything to do with it.” Or “I think I could have come up with a different plan.”
Better: Just say, “I am so sorry.” That is enough.
“Don’t cry.” During the journey of grief, tears are therapeutic.
Better: Don’t be put off by another’s weeping. Be silent while the person cries.
“God will never give you more than you can handle.” This statement is a distorted interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13 (“He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”). These words imply that if the grieving person is not handling things well then he or she must be weak, ineffective, or not capable.
Better: “This has to be hard for you.” Such a statement lets your friend know that you have some awareness of how difficult and burdensome the person’s loss has been.
“Time will heal all hurts and wounds.” Time only passes by. What has the potential to heal is not the passing of time, but what we do within that time.
Better: Just give the grieving person the time he or she needs. All people travel through the grief journey differently, and in differing time frames.
“Let me know if I can help.” I know that this common question comes from a heart of gold. However, a grieving person might feel so overwhelmed that he or she does not even know what can help at the moment.
Better: In the words of the athletic shoe commercial, “Just do it.” Say, “How about if I wash a load of clothes for you.” “Today is garbage day; I’ll take your can to the street.” “Who can I call for you?”
“It was his (or her) time to go.” How do you know? If the person died a nice, peaceful death in old age, then maybe this statement is accurate. But what if the person’s death was caused by an accident or a murder? Then it wasn’t that person’s time. The individual’s life was cut short.
Better: Say, “Your dad was loved by this community. He will be missed. These words acknowledge the reality of death, but don’t put pressure on the one who grieves the loss.
“You will feel better soon.” We say these words because we feel uncomfortable watching someone grieve. These words actually make us feel at ease.
Better: “I will be here for as long as you need.” Or “I will stay in touch with you.” These words show you aren’t here today and then gone tomorrow.
Any statement that begins with “You should,” You shouldn’t,” or “You will.” These statements are too authoritative and can make you come across as judge and jury. Some decisions a grieving person makes (like cleaning out the deceased’s closet, removing a wedding ring) are personal decisions only that individual can make.
Better: Say, “Have you thought about . . .?” “Have you considered . . .?” Again, you are allowing the person to make his or her own decisions.
The next time a friend or family member experiences the loss of a loved one, recall these words of counsel. You can impart hope to grieving people.