When a friend or loved one, or even just an acquaintance, is grieving, it’s hard to know what to say to them. You hate to see them hurting, so you try to come up with something comforting to say. Caring people have always done that. Just look at the story of Job in the Bible.
At the beginning of the book of Job, the man Job loses his livestock, servants, and even all his children, whom he loved dearly. He is overwhelmed with grief. All he can do is sit in stunned silence. Three of his friends hear about the terrible news and go check on him. They weep when they see him. Stunned, they sit with Job in silence for 7 days. “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). But then, like all friends, they want to help him feel better. So they start saying things intended to get him back on his feet. They want to make sense of the tragedy, and explain how such terrible things could happen. But hearing it makes Job angry. What’s more, it makes God angry too. So God shows up at the end of the book to set things straight. He tells Job’s friends, “I am angry with you, because you have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7).
Job’s friends said what they did with the best of intentions–helping their friend feel better–but they were not at all helpful. Let us not make the same mistakes. So here are 5 things you probably should not say to someone who’s grieving:
- “You need to move on” or “You’ll feel better soon.” Why it’s not helpful: you don’t know the loss they are feeling, and there is no set timeline for a person’s grief. Even if the person will likely feel better one day, being told so doesn’t make them feel better now, but it can add feelings of guilt if they hear you telling them that the grief they’re feeling (because of their love) is too much.
- “I know how you feel.” Why it’s not helpful: every person’s loss is different. Instead of assuming you already know how they feel, ask them about how they’re doing.
- “God never gives us more than we can handle.” (Note: that phrase is not in the Bible.) Why it’s not helpful: if a person who is really struggling after a loss hears that, they can think that they’re doing something wrong, since it’s been so hard on them. But that’s not the case. It’s hard because loss is hard. And God grieves with us.
- “It was God’s plan.” Why it’s not helpful: to imply that God wanted a loved one to die or for them to suffer will only make them angry at both God and you. (Remember Job.)
- “They wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Why it’s not helpful: it makes someone feel that their grief is wrong, which can add feelings of guilt on top of everything else.
In the end, when someone is experiencing deep grief, there is really nothing we can say to them that will take their pain away. There are no magic words that will make the hurt disappear. The story of Job demonstrates that. But we can say things to help them know that our heart goes out to them, they’re not alone, and we’re available for anything they need. So here are 5 things that are okay to say to someone who is grieving:
- “I’m sorry for your loss.” Why it’s helpful: it shows that you acknowledge someone’s pain, and that you feel for them. But don’t say it like you’d say, “Have a nice day.” Only say it if you really mean it.
- “How are you doing?” Why it’s helpful: it shows you genuinely care about them. But again, only ask if you really want to know. They might not be doing well at all, or feeling a lot of painful things. The fact that you’re willing to listen is the big, true gift. So don’t say, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Just listen and love.
- “I hear you.” Why it’s helpful: holding grief inside is burdensome and takes a toll. Inviting people to share and saying that you have heard them will help share their burden and lighten the load. You can keep going by recognizing specific things they have shared, like, “I hear how scared you are about life now” or, “I hear how much you worried about them.”
- “Would you like to talk about them?” Why it’s helpful: people who are grieving often want to tell stories about people they’ve lost, as a way to celebrate and remember them. So don’t worry that asking about the person will make them sadder. You can even share stories about the person too, to show that you’re not the only one with good memories who misses them.
- “I’m here for you.” Why it’s helpful: grief can be very lonely, so people who are grieving need to be reminded that they’re not alone–in life or in sadness. And try to steer away from “I’m here if…” or “Call me if…,” since that places the responsibility on them to initiate the contact. Instead, maybe say something like, “I’ll call you soon” or, “I’d like to come by this week” (or bring food, take you to lunch, etc.) That way they know you’re serious about being available.
The most important thing to remember when someone you know has experienced loss, is that nothing you can do or say will remove the loss or pain. There are no magic words that will make the hurt disappear. But there is love you can show in comfort. Simply being with them, and even crying with them, can be the most helpful thing to do. Being available and listening usually says more than any words could.
(Note: Grief and sadness can come from many things, not just death. Like the loss of a job, a marriage, health/independence, a child moving away, and others. So how can the lists mentioned apply differently to different situations?)