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What to Say (And Not to Say) When Someone Is Grieving

Grief

Content taken from What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie, ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

It was just two months after our daughter, Hope, died. My husband, David, and I found ourselves attending two funerals in one day—one for a baby who had died at birth, and another for a child who had died of the same syndrome our daughter had. I was waiting in line to greet the parents at the first funeral, when it hit me: I have no idea what to say. Of all people, I should know what to say to these friends. But I didn’t. I had no great wisdom that would answer the questions, no soothing truth that would take away the hurt.

I stumbled through both encounters and walked away with sympathy for all the people who, over the previous months, had struggled to know what to say to David and me. And I went away with more compassion for those who’d felt so helpless that they’d said nothing at all.

Let’s face it—it’s awkward. We want to say something personal, something meaningful, beautiful, helpful, sensitive. Something that demonstrates that we have a sense of what they’re going through. And what we don’t want is to be that person who said the stupid, insensitive thing.

Over many years now of interacting with grieving people—most of whom emerge from their experience of sorrow bent on setting the world straight on what to say and what not to say to people like themselves—I’ve learned a thing or two that people going through grief wish people understood. I have lots of specific, practical, usable ideas in the pages that follow, but the first and most important thing I have to tell you is this:

It matters less what you say than that you say something.

I remember well what a friend who had lost a child told me shortly before Hope died. “It wasn’t so much what people said that hurt,” she said. “What hurt was when people said nothing at all.” All too soon I discovered what she meant; the silence that seemed to scream that my daughter’s life didn’t even merit a mention. And, oh, how it hurt.

My husband discovered it too on his first day back to work after Hope died. A man came into his office talking a mile a minute but didn’t acknowledge our loss at all. David knew he knew. Maybe he thought David wouldn’t want to talk about it. Maybe he didn’t know how to bring it up. Maybe he thought the office was not the place for it. Most likely he just felt awkward and unsure of what to say, and so he just said nothing. Whatever it was, it hurt.

I also remember well, however, that humbling day when I realized how often I had been that person—that person who said nothing about the loss of a loved one to someone stinging with grief. I saw my friend Susan, whose mother had died. I remembered how I had neglected to say anything early on, assuming that since so many other people were speaking to her about her loss, surely she wouldn’t notice if I didn’t.

What I didn’t understand at the time is that when you’re grieving, you know who has acknowledged it in some way and who hasn’t. You just do.  

Last night I was talking with a friend who was trying to figure out if and how to reach out to someone she hasn’t talked to for years who just lost her thirty-five-year-old son. I explained to her that when someone you love has died, it is as if a hurdle has been placed between you and every person you know, and that hurdle stays in place until your loss has been acknowledged in some way. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or a long conversation. Sometimes a simple, “I know what has happened and I’m so sorry,” or even a nonverbal hand on the shoulder or squeeze of the hand will knock down that barrier.

A few months after our daughter died, I was in the car pool line waiting to pick up my son from school, when another mom, who had a daughter born a short time before Hope, came up to my car. She told me that she felt awkward every time she saw me because she still had her daughter while mine was gone, and that she didn’t how to get past that awkwardness. “You just did,” I told her. Simply acknowledging that the barrier was there knocked it down.

Don’t hesitate to approach someone because you think it has been too long since his or her loved one died so that they’ve probably moved on and wouldn’t want to talk about it anymore. The reality is more likely to be the opposite. If it has been a while, it is likely that people have stopped talking about the deceased one, but the grieving ones’ desire to talk about him or her has only increased. So bring it up. And keep bringing it up over the coming months and even years. That is a gift a true friend gives someone who is grieving.

The second thing I have to tell you about your desire to know what to say, before we dive into ideas about what to say, is this: even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving.

Does that take some pressure off? I hope so. Really, there is nothing you can say that will make their loss hurt less. It’s going to hurt for a while. They’re not looking to you to make sense of it or to say something they haven’t thought of or something that makes it not hurt. Your purpose in saying something is to enter into the hurt with them and let them know they are not alone.

Recently Nancy joined us on the ChurchLeaders Podcast. You can listen to her interview here:

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nancyguthrie@churchleaders.com'
Nancy Guthrie and her husband, David, and son, Matt, make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. Nancy speaks at conferences around the country and internationally, and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Covenant Theological Seminary through their distance education program. She and David are the co-hosts of the GriefShare video series used in over 8,500 churches around the country and host Respite Retreats for couples who have experienced the death of a child. Nancy is the author of a dozen books including her first, Holding on to Hope, and is currently working on a five-book series of Old Testament Bible studies called the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament series.