In What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts), Nancy Guthrie offers insights gained from the loss of two children from genetic disease and the work she and her husband have done since with other grieving couples.
In the previous blog, we looked at some basics – that being present means more than words, that we’re not expected to make everything OK, that listening is often the most helpful thing we can do.
Let’s now consider some examples of phrases – most, unfortunately, gleaned from real life – that Guthrie suggests avoiding with people who are mourning.
• I know just how you feel. Really, no one can. Even if circumstances are similar, everyone’s experience with grief is different.
• You’ll be fine. Even though this phrase is presumably meant to encourage, the grieving person may hear it as suggesting the deceased person’s life really wasn’t worth grieving and really didn’t matter in any lasting way.
• You can have more children/You still have other children/You’ll get married again. Even if these are true, no one will ever replace the children or spouse who has died.
• Don’t you think it’s time to move on? Don’t rush anyone through their mourning; there is no prescribed timeline for grieving. It can be helpful to encourage “moving forward” toward healing and joy that incorporates their grief and sadness while coming to acceptance and a new sense of “normal.” “Moving on,” though, implies leaving behind the person they loved.
• This must be God’s will. What we mean when we say that may not be even close to what is heard. Grieving people may hear, God wanted your loved one to die,” “God gave your mother the cancer that killed her,” “God is happy that your loved one took his own life,” “Even though this feels like a bad thing, it is really a good thing,” “That drunk driver isn’t responsible for the death of your loved one, since really God did this.” Not the messages we want to send.
• The pain never goes away. We may mean the one who died will always be valued and remembered, but what grieving people often hear instead is, “You are always going to feel the same level of pain you feel right now.”
• God just needed her in heaven more than we needed her here or God took him so … . Such quasi-spiritual statements can trivialize the grieving person’s loss and pursuit of legitimate answers to spiritual questions.
• Call me if you need something. Grieving people are overwhelmed already. They need you to figure out what they need and just show up and do it. It may be calling relatives and friends, mowing the lawn, buying groceries, cleaning their house, caring for young children. For some friends, it may even include accompanying them to make funeral arrangements. After a death, there’ll be all those tasks and a hundred others, both immediate and longer-term. (More on this in a later blog.)
• How are you? This is a most natural question to ask someone who’s grieving, and it may be intended as an invitation to talk about their loss, but many who’ve been there say they feel put on the spot, as though they’re required to give a status report on this “project” called grief. They can’t answer truthfully answer “I’m fine,” but they probably don’t want to say, “I’m terrible,” “I’m angry!” or “I’m crying all the time.”
Our next blog in this series will touch on some safe and potentially comforting things to say to people who are going through grief.
NOTE: This blog series is adapted 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