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What to Say to Those Who Grieve

In the 13 years I’ve been a crisis response chaplain, I’ve been on a lot of death calls. In those and other settings I’ve heard many people with good intentions try to help the grieving family members. Sometimes what they say or do can be good. Often, though, what they say or do can be less helpful. When people say the wrong things I have watched the grieving shut the want-to-be helper from ministering to their heart.

I teach a class for fire professionals on death and dying, so I made them a list of some of the good and bad things I’ve heard people say. Here are the top five in each category.

Top five bad things I’ve heard people say:

5. God needed another angel.

I’m not sure what theology this comes from, but it tends to do little to nothing to comfort a grieving family member. It portrays God as one who is ready to snatch our loved ones from us. Now if the grieving person brought this up I realize that this was his/her way to understand what has gone on and I would try to flow with it the best I can while staying true to myself. I have learned that during times of initial grief it is not the time for theological debates.

4. He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.

It may be true, he or she may have not wanted you to be sad. But grief is part of life. We only grieve those we love and have lost. Usually when I hear a helper say this, I wonder if they are so uncomfortable with the other person’s grief that they are trying to shut them down. Saying this to a person who has lost someone special usually does no good, and it may cause them harm. Grief is a process or journey. By shutting down grief people risk getting stuck in their grief journey, which can cause serious psychological consequences. There is a place and time when we may need to shut down a grief response, but it should never be because we feel uncomfortable.

3. There is a reason for everything / God is in control.

Again, this puts the blame of the death squarely on God. Even if your theology dictates that God is the reason for the death, at the time of death people aren’t necessarily looking for deep theological answers. They need comfort because they just lost their loved one. Again, I would never bring this up first. If the grieved brings this up and it brings comfort to them then ok. Also, this tends to be especially harmful to say to children since they cannot comprehend deep theological mysteries.

2. God will never give you more than you can handle.

Actually, the scripture that most people are referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says that God will not give you more temptation than you can bear. But there are plenty of times that we have more than we can handle in life. I have found those times are when God invites us to lean on Him for support. Again I see people say this to shut down an uncomfortable grief situation.

1. I know how you feel / This reminds me of when I….

Even if you have experienced the exact same thing, this is about their grief, not yours. The grieving family member could really care less if you have experienced the same situation or not. This is their deep pain. Instead of trying to minimize or top their pain, draw close and enter in. Bringing up your own experience risks either shutting down someone’s grief response or alienating yourself from being able to help. It is good to avoid it.

Top five good things I’ve heard people say:

5. I will be keeping you and your family in my prayers.

Be sincere and keep your word. Pray for them. And if it’s appropriate, pray with them and for them. If protocols allow, follow up with them.

4. Please accept our most heartfelt sympathies for your loss.

This may sound too much like a Hallmark moment, but it is still a good thing to say.

3. Mr. Smith seemed like a nice man. I see he was very loved. We join you in your loss.

If you are on a death scene in a home, take a time to get to know the story of the person who died. Recognizing and declaring the story of the person who died is one of the most honorable things one can do. This person had a story which needs to be honored.

2. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

This is very similar to #5. There seems to be a backlash against these phrases today. Maybe that’s because, too often, thoughts and prayers are as far as we go. While thoughts and prayers are good, maybe a practical demonstration of love and help would be appropriate, too.

1. Nothing at all. Just be with them.

Even Job’s friends seemed wise and caring when they just sat with him and said nothing at all. Sometimes it is more appropriate to say nothing but to just “be” with someone in their grief. As a chaplain, you are a reminder God does not leave or abandon people. This is part of what the ministry of presence is all about.

I have found that while a grief response may be similar from one person to another, it is still a very deep and spiritual personal experience. Entering in and in some way celebrating the life is one of the most honorable and loving things we can do.

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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