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21 Things Not to Say to a Hurting Friend

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).

This may be the most unbelievable article we’ve ever posted on this website.

You will not believe what some people say to a bereaved parent or the family member of someone tragically injured.

Recently, while talking to Holly and her mother, I began to pick up on some truly bizarre things people said to them after Holly’s young-adult brother Seth’s tragic automobile accident that left him severely disabled, completely helpless and almost totally without the ability to communicate. Holly describes his condition as “a low level of consciousness due to a profound brain injury.”

Frankly, I was overwhelmed by some of the things people have said to this family. I had no idea people could be so thoughtless, so clueless, so heartless—all in the name of the Lord and ostensibly with the best of intentions.

After our visit, I asked if Holly and Mary—the sister and mother of Seth—could write down some of the things people have said to them over the several years Seth has been in this sad condition. (Our discussion centered around the strange comments—that’s where our greatest teaching for this article focuses—but at the end of this article, Holly shares some of the helpful words that were spoken.)

My single contribution to the discussion was something our family pastor back in Alabama told me. When his teenage son was killed in a motorcycle accident, the family and community were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone was genuinely concerned. Most people said kind and supportive things. However, a few comments shocked even the pastor.

One lady told the bereaved pastor, “I know exactly how you feel. When my son went off to college, I thought my heart would break.” The pastor smiled and thanked her, but the thought that filled his mind was, “Well, did your son come back from college? Because my son is never coming back!”

Holly wanted me to emphasize that all the Christian folks who have said these things to us have good intentions. Everyone genuinely thinks they’re offering something helpful. Holly is probably more charitable than I am. Not everyone who deigns to speak for God has the best interests of others at heart.

Here they are, in the order in which she sent them along …

1. “If you just had enough faith, your son would be healed.”

The variations on this theme were endless. One wonders where people came up with the notion that God will heal everyone who has faith enough. Do they think the hospitals are populated only by the sinful and faithless?

2. “God wants to heal your brother. It’s your parents’ fault that he does not sit up in that bed, completely restored, because they will not get rid of their doubts and have faith!”

Holly said, “The poor guy. Apparently, God really wants to heal Seth, but His hands are tied because the victim’s parents don’t have enough faith!”

If the Lord healed everyone of everything, no one would ever die. The story of Job in the Old Testament clearly speaks to this idea that suffering results from sin. Now all we have to do is get the Lord’s people to read the Bible.

3. “You need to have faith, not that your son can be healed, but to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is already healed, and he will be.”

Holly says, “Now that one just does not begin to make sense!” I respond, “You haven’t been listening to the right faith healers on television, my sister.”

The “name it and claim it” philosophy holds that when you believe it strongly enough, that will make it a reality. The best answer to this shallow heresy is: “Preach it in Haiti. I’d like to see those people prosper. Then I promise you I’ll believe.”

4. “What do you think God is trying to teach you through this?”

This is the fix-it mentality. People see a tragedy and want to make it right. Never mind that they are not capable and are giving counsel far out of their field of expertise, assuming they have one.

5. “Remember, pastor …” (Oh! Did I tell you that Holly and Seth’s father is a pastor?) “… it says in Romans that ‘God works all things together for good.’”

The family wishes they had a nickel for each time they’ve heard that. Holly comments that it falls under the category of “trite but true.”

6. “You know, you’re really lucky. I’ve heard that being an empty-nester is really hard. Now, you’ll never have to go through that!”

The reason he will never leave home is that Seth will remain completely dependent on his parents’ care the rest of his life. His life-expectancy (I asked about this) is around 15 years, half of which he has already lived in this condition.

7. “You know, you’re really lucky. I was watching a TV show last night that said those who use their brains every day are less likely to become senile in old age. So taking care of your son is keeping you young and sharp.”

I know, I know. You’re doubting that anyone actually said something this stupid. They did.

8. “Here’s why I think God did this.”

The family member on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom thinks to him/herself, “Really? You presume to know the mind of God?”

Two explanations as to “why God did this” stand out in Holly’s mind:

a) “Your son is a sacrificial lamb, showing the rest of us how to live.”

This person’s God seems to be the epitome of cruelty.

b) “He was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. So, God must have looked into the future and seen that he would raise a family and teach them not to wear their seatbelts and one day they would all have been killed in an accident. So God did this to spare his future family.”

That one leaves me speechless.

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Joe McKeever has been a preacher for nearly 60 years, a pastor for 42 years, and a cartoonist/writer for Christian publications all his adult life. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.