What do you say when someone dies?
When things get real, it can quickly get uncomfortable. This is why a lot of us like to keep conversations light. Why we tend to back out of conversations that get heavy. Many of us would rather keep it at the level of “How you doing?” “Doing great!”
This type of conversation happens naturally at church with a donut in one hand and a Bible in the other. Not so much in a hospital room. You’re visiting someone in the hospital, and the question is slower and quieter. “How . . . is it going?” You’ll hear real answers in the hospital, things like, “Well, the doctor says it’s not super encouraging, but there are a couple things they are going to try.”
Some other places the conversation gets real: at the visitation and the funeral. It gets real in the church lobby after the casket’s been closed and you’re filing through talking to family members. Life just happened in the form of a death.
Can’t just talk about movies. Can’t just mention about how up and down the weather’s been. Can’t just talk sports. Because it just got really real.
When things get real, it can be hard to know what to say. It’s hard to know how to really comfort the person who’s hurting. What could I say that will actually help? How do I say it so that there’s no awkwardness?
What do you say when someone dies? “It’s hard to know how to really comfort the person who’s hurting. What could I say that will actually help? How do I say it so that there’s no awkwardness?”
Unfortunately, I’ve talked to people who have gone through seasons of grieving. People who’ve lost a spouse. Or who’ve lost a parent. And I hate to tell you, but a lot of conversations well-meaning Christians have in order to encourage and comfort hurting people simply are not working.
It’s a little like the church marquee that says, “We love hurting people.” Sometimes well-meaning Christians say things out of love to comfort grieving people, but the words don’t help and may end up actually making them feel worse.
A Couple False Hopes
Often, we come into these conversations with a couple hopes that aren’t true—hopes that don’t reflect reality. The first hope we have is that time makes it go away. The pain goes away with time, right? Well, it’s after the funeral, it’s been a few weeks, and it’s safe to assume they’re over it by now, right? Now, when I talk to the person, I probably don’t even need to bring it up—because time makes it go away . . . doesn’t it?
One friend who lost a parent told me that, because well-meaning friends didn’t want things to be awkward or difficult, they would just avoid the topic. A friend of mine who lost his wife said, “After the funeral, it seemed that everyone just disappeared.” The hope is that time makes it go away, but it’s just not true. The same widower said simply, “Time does not always heal all wounds.”
Here’s a second hope we have that isn’t true: it’s the hope that talking makes it go away. The idea is that you can bring comfort to the person by sharing encouraging words or sharing your own experience with loss. The talking will make things better, right? Not always. We see a fantastic example of unhelpful comfort in the movie Home Alone, where the mom and dad have accidentally left 8-year-old Kevin home alone, and they’re on their flight to Florida, feeling horrible. Uncle Frank tries to make things better by saying, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I forgot my reading glasses.”
What do you say when someone dies? “The hope is that time makes it go away, but it’s just not true.”
The truth is my experience isn’t your experience. If I say, “I know how you feel,” it’s simply not true. I don’t know how you feel, and for me just to talk and talk isn’t probably going to truly comfort you. One of my friends who lost a wife said, “When I needed to talk, they would tell me their story and not allow me to tell them my story and emotions.”
We tend to fill the air with statements that might be true—but might be taken more like fillers than helpful statements. For example, “Well, you know, she’s in a better place,” or, “Well, you know, everything works to the good,” or, “Well, at least you got to have her for as long as you did.”
So it’d be nice if it were true that time makes it go away and talking makes it go away, but I’m not convinced that anything can actually make it go away this side of heaven. For some of those men and women who lost their spouses, kids who lost their parents, it will get better, but I don’t see the hurt actually going away. So that’s the bad news. Many of our conversations to comfort are often not really comforting people.
What do you say when someone dies? “The truth is my experience isn’t your experience.”
Our Mentor in How to Comfort
There is good news, however: you and I have a Friend who isn’t afraid of things getting real. And he models for us the best way we can bring comfort to a grieving person.
In short, Jesus came near and suffered with us. Now, he did a ton more than just that. (For starters, he healed the sick, raised the dead, taught us hope, died for our sins, rose from the dead as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, and is returning to rescue and restore our fallen earth. All of those are ways he brought and brings us comfort when we grieve.) But let’s not miss perhaps the most fascinating unexpected way God encouraged us: he came near and suffered with us.
“Jesus came near and suffered with us.”
Yes, it’s important to encourage people with well-timed, heart-felt words (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:18 says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words”). But words can be ill-timed and ring trite. (Just ask Job whose griefs were compounded by a barrage of thoughtless commentary from presumptuous friends.) In our attempts at comforting each other, we must not neglect the incarnational way Jesus suffered along with the people he loved. Jesus came so near that he suffered right along with people. This passage is set in the context of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:32-36, NIV)
How a Jesus Who Suffers with Us Influences Us
Our friendship with a Savior who suffers with us influences us today in a couple big ways. One, it changes how we pray. After all, when we pray, we’re coming to Someone who gets it. He’s entered into our pain. (Here is one of many references to Jesus’ suffering: According to Hebrews 2:18, NIV, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”) Jesus knows what our suffering is like. So we have the confidence to come to him in our need.
As we read through the Psalms, we discover that very often the psalmist is not hiding his pain from God but rather praying his pain, bringing it to God and saying, “Where are you, God? Help me, God! I’m hurting!”
For example, Psalm 44:23-26 (NIV) says,
“Arouse Yourself, why do You sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth. Rise up, be our help, and redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness.”
Knowing Jesus and how he suffers with sufferers changes how we pray.
“As we read through the Psalms, we discover that very often the psalmist is not hiding his pain from God but rather praying his pain.”
Secondly, our friendship with a suffering Savior changes how we comfort people. Do you want to know the best definition of friendship I’ve ever come across? Romans 12:15 (NIV):
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.”
What does a good friend do? What makes a good friendship? Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. When it comes to comforting people who are hurting, one of the most encouraging things you can do is weep right alongside them, grieve with them, listen to their hurts, encourage them to tell their story.
As one friend who lost a parent told me, “The most helpful things were the people who continued to love me and didn’t avoid me because things were awkward or difficult. I’m not typically an emotional person, so the people who called me out and encouraged me to feel deeply and engage with my grief were really important for me.” Weep with those who weep.
7 Statements That Help
And, yes, there are some things we can say that grieving people find comforting. I’m thankful to the friends who have shared with me from their experiences. From what they’ve told me, I’ll give you a list of 7 things to say. Not every one of these is guaranteed to help every time, but they are statements that have been known to help.
Here they are:
- “I’m so sorry.”
- “Would you like to talk about it?”
- “How are you holding up?”
- “I’m praying for you.”
- “It’s okay to grieve. Take as much time as you need.”
- “Are you taking care of yourself?”
- “What can I do to help?”
And, yes, there is definitely a time to share hopeful verses from Scripture. One grieving father mentionied that one of the encouragements that got him through were when genuine friends would sent him Scriptures they were praying for him. We do well, though, to remember that timing and tone are crucial. Sometimes Bible verses can be delivered in ways that feel trite or dismissive. The grieving person needs to know that you are speaking truth from a context of genuine compassion (again, weep with those who weep), and not simply out of a compulsion to say something.
What do you say when someone dies? “One grieving father mentioned that one of the encouragements that got him through were when genuine friends would sent him Scriptures they were praying for him.”
I encourage you to remember a few of these seven statements for when someone you know is grieving in some way. I think you’ll find that these are seven ways of having conversations that really do bring comfort. Let us be guided by 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV):
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
Remember that the comfort with which God has comforted us was never trite or aloof. He came near and suffered with us. Let’s pray that God would use us to have conversations of comfort to help heal this broken world.