Last week, my wife and I went to the funeral of one of our dear friend’s sisters. She died suddenly, and her mother, Mrs. Martin, was left to bury her daughter – something that often happens in this cruel world, but should never, ever happen. Mrs. Martin is a Godly, vibrant and joyful woman who has hundreds of friends through the church that she has been a member of for almost 30 years. The visitation for the funeral was quite crowded, and Mrs. Martin – though herself suffering the loss of her youngest daughter – was kindly ministering to everybody that had come to see her. She was hugging them all and smiling at them – deeply grieving inside, but not so much on the surface. I watched as one of her friends walked up to her; one more mourner in an extremely long line of friends. This friend was a tall woman that seemed a bit awkward. She said nothing, but simply leaned over and hugged Mrs. Martin and cried – not gentle and appropriate tears, and not loud and attention grabbing tears…but deep, heartfelt tears that came from a genuine place of mourning. The two ladies just hugged and cried for quite some time – no words were said. As the taller lady walked away, she noticed one of her friends in the line, and looked at her friend and simply said, “I didn’t know what to say, so I just cried.” Though there is no way to know for sure, I believe that this lady – out of hundreds of people that came to the funeral that day to comfort Mrs. Martin – was probably one of the most comforting by far. No words were exchanged – but it was obvious to an outside observer how much it meant to Mrs. Martin to have somebody actually weep with her.
Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.
I have been in pastoral ministry for over twenty 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 and greenhorn youth minister, I was summoned to the hospital one night due to a wreck involving one of our youth. I got there while he was still in surgery, and I was asked to go pray for the young man. I hesitated, because I was a coward, and I knew that he was very gravely injured. It would be my only chance to pray for him, as he died about an hour later. 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 calmly – perhaps even coldly and callously – told this young man’s parents that he had died on the operating table. Though that night was roughly sixteen 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.
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 to 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 THE 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! 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:
- “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 this 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 to day God needed a new angel and he just wanted the best” Please don’t use that expression!
- “God only takes the best!” In this sense, 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! Note that the above cut and paste from a CNN site mourning Steve Irwin contains examples of both #1 and #2 in the same sentence.
- “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 to 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!
- “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, then 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.
- “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.
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 that, 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. With that in mind, here are:
Three thoughts on what TO say to those who are mourning:
- Sometimes you don’t have to SAY anything. We all stumble for words when we are interacting with somebody in extreme grief. They are hurting, and we have a natural – and wholesome – instinct to try and comfort them and soothe their pain. I suspect that this dynamic is the main reason why we say so many stupid and inaccurate things to people who are mourning. We want to help, and words are failing us…so we just say something. However, it is far better to say nothing than it is to say something harmful. Remember the example above about the awkward, tall lady at my friend’s sister’s funeral? That lady had no words, so she just mourned with a mourning mother – in a genuine and quiet way. Shared suffering is powerful – often far more powerful than even the best cliches.
Hebrews 13:3 “Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.”
- The WORD of God is comforting. While I think it is wise to avoid merely quoting a Bible verse to somebody who is suffering (The Word of God is LIVING and ACTIVE and POWERFUL; but treating it like a mere band-aid cheapens it somehow) I believe it is powerful to share Scripture with those who are suffering. Not in a drive-by way – but in the context of demonstrating love through time and your presence. In the midst of that – a powerful Scripture like Revelation 21 (quoted below) is indeed comforting and helpful. The truth that one day, God will wipe away every tear is a precious truth. The truth that some people will be crying right up until the point of Jesus’ Second Coming and triumphant victory is a sobering reality.
Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.”
3. Persist, even after a lot of time has passed. Grief is a very, very lonely process, and a very lonely emotion. When you are suffering the grief of the death of a loved one, it often feels like nobody else in the entire world has suffered quite like you are suffering. And that grief lasts a very, very long time. Most friends of people who are mourning will, after a certain amount of time, attempt to bring their relationship with the mourner back to a more normal place. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. As Christians, we DO grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We grieve WITH hope – knowing that God will one day wipe every tear from our eye. That said – we still grieve, and we still remember those whom we have lost. As the friend of somebody in mourning, do them the kindness of remembering also. It might be easier to never bring up the departed loved one – perhaps to spare the feelings of your suffering friend – but avoid that temptation. Remember them vocally, and continue to comfort your friend weeks, months and even years after their loss.
I close with two very powerful thoughts on death and mourning from two people who’s lives were scorched deeply by it:
- George Mueller was a mighty man of prayer. In his autobiography, he wrote this paragraph about how God sustained him after the death of his wife:
The last portion of scripture which I read to my precious wife was this: “The Lord God is a sun and shield, the Lord will give grace and glory, no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.” Now, if we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have received grace, we are partakers of grace, and to all such he will give glory also. I said to myself, with regard to the latter part, “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly”—I am in myself a poor worthless sinner, but I have been saved by the blood of Christ; and I do not live in sin, I walk uprightly before God. Therefore, if it is really good for me, my darling wife will be raised up again; sick as she is. God will restore her again. But if she is not restored again, then it would not be a good thing for me. And so my heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God. And all this springs, as I have often said before, from taking God at his word, believing what he says.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who resisted Hitler and the rise of the Nazi’s – a decision which ultimately led to him being executed. He wrote these words while facing death:
“Why are we so afraid when we think about death? Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle. It beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland … Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can [by our faith in Christ] transform death.”