[Editor’s note: Today’s guest article, by author Brian Orme, reminds us that it’s possible to share something that is “true” and still fail to be helpful. Empathy is often the missing ingredient when we seek to comfort those grieving a loss.]
When it comes to grief and loss, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work says, “Rarely does a response make something better; what makes something better is a connection.” When trying to comfort a good friend or family member during the death of a loved one we usually find ourselves searching for the right words to say, but often our words unintentionally derail the grieving process.
The words we say to the grieving are usually meant to comfort, but sometimes they become grief deflectors. We like to pull our friends and family members out of their despair and into hope, but sometimes, we just need to be present with them in the darkness. Grief, lament, sorrow, these are all part of life. In fact, the Bible has a whole book dedicated to grief and mourning called Lamentations. And it’s there for good reason. Grief and sorrow create a rich soil for our faith to grow deeper.
Here are three things we should probably stop saying to someone who’s recently lost a loved one. These simple phrases sound comforting on the surface, but they typically serve as patchwork rather than healing balm to the suffering. If you want to validate someone’s loss and give him/her permission to grieve, stay clear of these phrases and just be present, vulnerable and make a deeper connection.
1. “They’re in a better place.”
This phrase tends to make the person who’s grieving feel like their current struggle isn’t credible because if they were truly spiritual they would know how great this moment really is! At its best, this phrase is well meaning and at its worst it can feel like spiritual abuse. When Jesus came to Mary and Martha after his good friend Lazarus died, he did one simple thing: he cried. Instead of saying, “At least Lazarus is in a better place,” Jesus joined the mourners. When it comes to grief, vulnerable empathy always beats the spiritual catchphrase. Resist the urge to inject a quick dose of hope and offer your solidarity instead.
2. “At least they’re not suffering anymore.”
When you’re going through an earth-shattering loss, you’re not looking for the smallest common denominator of hope. No one wants their loved one to suffer, but you still desperately want them to be present. If we go back to Jesus at Lazarus’ gravesite, I can’t imagine him saying to Mary or Martha, “Well, at least he’s not suffering anymore.” Jesus was racked with sorrow himself and through his tears he gave others permission to grieve—human connection at its deepest.
3. “Time heals all wounds.”
This could be true, but it’s a terrible cliché and it trivializes the present pain—pointing to the fact that it will heal… just hang in there! A person who loses a loved one is connected to them through their grief. It’s hard to separate the two—the grief from the love—during the first stages of loss. Avoid platitudes and trite phrases. Remember, it’s not your job to heal them—it’s your job to feel something deep with them and give them permission to grieve in the context of their faith.
Cry, hug, pray and be present in the midst of loss. Don’t rush people through grief, because in doing so, you might help them bypass the very comfort of God.