How Do We Comfort the Suffering? Part 2: What NOT to Say to Those Who are Grieving! #49

Welcome to the Bible Reading Podcast! (Encourage Sharing on SM/Reviews, etc) Today’s readings include Exodus Chapter 1 – which means we have completed the entire book of Genesis together – Go team! Sadly for the Israelites (in the short term!), Exodus opens with this ominous bit of foreshadowing in chapter 1, vs. 8, ” A new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” In Luke 4, we will see how Jesus overcomes the attacks of Satan in the desert by the expert use of the Sword of the Word of God. 1 Corinthians 5 is all about church discipline, a biblical practice that is sadly neglected in many of our churches. Our focus remains in Job today, and we will be reading chapters 17 and 18, and asking the question how can we help and encourage the hurting and suffering. As I mentioned yesterday, part of what I’m sharing below is from my first book, Unshackled: Facing Suffering With the Real Jesus (and Not the Shack, or Pop-Culture Christianity,) which holds the Guinness book of World records for longest book by an unknown author.

I have been in pastoral ministry for over twenty-five years, and in that time have ministered to dozens of families who are mourning the death of those nearest to them. Some of the deaths are more…bearable (?) than others, if death can be in any way bearable at all. I’ve done the funeral for a lovely World War 2 veteran of D-Day who had been married to his wife for roughly 70 years. That was hard, and I am sure it still is for his surviving wife – I cannot imagine being separated from my wife of 20 years – how much more difficult must it be to be separated from a spouse of 70?! This funeral was sad – with much tears and grieving, but also was celebratory – rejoicing in a faithful marriage of almost 70 years, and celebrating the life of a remarkable man who had lived a long and amazing life.

Some of the funerals I have done are nothing but grieving, mourning, tears, tragedy and incredible sadness. Many years ago, while still a young, greenhorn youth minister, I was summoned to the hospital one night due to a wreck involving one of our youth. I will never forget that night – sitting next to this young man’s mom and dad, as we awaited news in the waiting room. When the surgeon walked in, he had a grim look on his face, and very coldly and callously told this young man’s parents that he had died on the operating table. Though that night was twenty years ago, I can still clearly hear the gut-shredding wail of his mom in my mind, and the look on her face as she mourned the death of her only child. Heartbreaking. Words failed that night. And the surgeon’s communication and lack of compassion only added to the misery. (Though I am quite sure he tried his best!)

Another funeral involved a family that I did not know at all – but our church had helped them with food previously, and thus they asked our church to provide a pastor for the funeral. In this particular tragedy, a very young married couple had a lovely baby that was killed one night when the husband got either drunk or stoned (or both) and inadvertently rolled over on the baby that they were co-sleeping with, and smothered him. Both the husband and the wife were at the funeral, as was their family – and they wanted me to share words of comfort and hope into what seemed for all the world like a hopeless situation.

What do we say in situations like these? Maybe you’ve never faced a scenario like the above, and maybe you aren’t in ministry….but I guarantee that you will, multiple times in your life, be the friend or family member of somebody who has lost a loved one to death…and they will look to you for support, love, help and comfort. How do you handle that? What can you say to make things better? Well – here’s the thing to remember that is very important: IT IS LIKELY THAT YOU DO NOT HAVE THE POWER IN THAT MOMENT TO MAKE THINGS BETTER. And when we try to make things better, we end up saying things that are factually untrue, or are meaninglessly cliche and in doing so, it is possible that we can make things worse! Let’s read our Job passages, and then come back and discuss what we should not say to those who are suffering.

Here are five things that I have heard people actually say to those who are grieving, and a brief word on why to NEVER say these things:

Top Five Worst Things to Say to Those Who Have Lost a Loved One

  1. “God Needed a new angel in Heaven!” UGH!! Please don’t say this – ever, to anybody. First of all, how in the world can this expression, as false as it is, ever be comforting to somebody that has lost a child, or a family member? “God was running short on something, so He – the God of everything who has everything – actually took a child or loved one from me?!” This is a cruel statement, and it is not comforting at all – not in the least. Secondly – it is not even remotely true. The Bible does NOT teach that people become angels when they die…in fact, when Christians die, they become like Jesus – with a body like His! (See Philippians 3:20-21, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” ) Note: Two people in an online internet discussion thread mourning the death of one of my heroes, Steve Irwin, used the “God Needed an Angel” line” Sigh. A direct quote, “to lose a father is something a child should never go through, but today God needed a new angel and he just wanted the best” Please don’t use that expression! God does NOT kill people to stock up on angels.
  2. “God only takes the best!” This is foolish and illogical, because God takes EVERYBODY. We will all die! (Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once”) Please don’t tell people that God only takes the best – it just doesn’t make any sense, isn’t accurate in the least, and is actually incredibly non-comforting and confusing!
  3. “Well, at least you…” OR: “Be thankful that…” There are many ways that this phrase ends, but most of the time it begins the same way: “At least you still have your other children!” “At least you still have your husband/wife/dog/Playstation 4!” “At least you had a few years with them before they left!” “Be thankful that they didn’t have too suffer long!” None of these phrases are comforting, and they are all ultimately quite petty. Essentially, the message is: “Stop whining about this death, and be happy, because you are making me unhappy/uncomfortable!” If you are tempted to try to console somebody with a sentence that begins, “At least you…” then please, stop and reconsider. And yes, while it is good to be thankful always – ordering a grieving person to be thankful is insensitive and unaware of the Ecclesiastes 3:4 dynamic. There is indeed a time to rejoice and a time to mourn. It is right, good and biblical for us to mourn, so don’t try to steer people away from mourning – mourn with them!
  4. “I know how you feel…” We are humans and we often think in metaphors and comparisons. Mourning death is one of those places where we should avoid this at all costs. When somebody has lost a child, the only people who TRULY know at least a little bit about how they feel are other people who have lost a child. When somebody has lost a parent, or a spouse, again, the only people who know how they feel are people who have lost a parent or a child. If you are comforting somebody who is mourning a loss that is exactly like one you have experienced, then it is kind and comforting and soothing to share your grief with them – but even then, it is rarely encouraging to use the phrase, “I Know how you feel.” Be very careful with this expression, as you really don’t know how that person is feeling. Even though their situation might look on the surface exactly the same as one you have been through, chances are that there are many differences beneath the surface.
  5. “God has a plan…” YES! God does indeed have a plan. He is completely sovereign and in control. His sovereignty isn’t harsh, and He loves us with an everlasting and unfathomable love, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And yet – if somebody doesn’t have a very deep biblical understanding of the loving nature of God and His sovereignty, then this statement isn’t comforting at all. Even for those who do understand such passages as Romans 8:28-29 in a very deep way – the phrase, “God has a plan.” can be a little flummoxing. Why does God’s plan involve the death of my loved one? God does indeed have a plan, but those words aren’t the best words to comfort somebody who is suffering in the moment. Can you imagine Peter and John comforting Jesus, as He prayed with agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, with this line?

    So – those are some phrases that really should be avoided. In fact – the whole idea that we can share a sentence or two with somebody and actually help/comfort them is an idea which, with perhaps rare exceptions, should be avoided. Grieving with those who grieve rarely involves the sharing of a pithy saying or two. Rather, grieving with those who grieve far more often involves walking beside them, listening to them, praying for them, crying with them and just simply being there. Those who are suffering don’t often need a sentence or two saying to feel better. They need something far deeper than that. On tomorrow’s episode #50, we will cover some helpful things to say to those who are suffering, and some helpful ways to say those things. Hope you can join us then! For now, I will close with this great quote from Nancy Guthrie’s article on comforting those who are grieving:

But here’s the truth. When you’ve gone through the loss of a loved one, it’s almost as if there is a barrier put up between you and every person in your world. And it’s not until that person acknowledges your loss that that barrier comes down. And it doesn’t have to be anything brilliant.

And sometimes it can even be wordless. I can think of times when I was going through grief when someone just came next to me and squeezed my hand or gave me even a knowing look, with that sense of, “I know what’s going on, and I’m sad and I’m in a sense speechless.”|

And then one of the really beautiful things some people did was actually weep in my presence. And I know that sounds awkward for some people — I think especially men. I know for my husband, he wouldn’t say, “Wow, I was really hoping people would come and cry with me.” That wasn’t the form his grief took.

But for many of us, when you’re carrying this huge load of sorrow and you look up, and you see someone who is shedding tears — that they are so identifying with your loss that they are in a sense carrying some of the load of sorrow for you — that’s an incredible gift to give to someone who’s grieving.

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