by Steven Norris
Over the past two weeks, I’ve suggested that there are some sayings we should avoid when speaking to a grieving family. Too often, we revert to platitudes and cliches that reinforce unhelpful ideas about God and the role of suffering. The French writer, Leon Bloy, suggested that platitudes are “a kind of escape hatch for fleeing.” Instead, let me offer a few things that you might say to a grieving family as you stand in the receiving line of the funeral home.
“I cannot imagine how you feel.” Even if you have been through a similar experience to someone, we must acknowledge that all pain and grief is unique. We don’t know all of the exact circumstances that comprised a relationship, nor do we know how a person is processing loss. It is better to admit that sympathetically by acknowledging their pain.
“I am here (praying) for you.” The ministry of presence is a powerful thing. I remember when a close friend’s mother died. I was in my early twenties, still new my formal role as a minister. I didn’t know what to say, so I sat with him, cried with him, and wouldn’t leave him alone. It may have been the best thing I could have done.
“Here is what I would like to do for you.” Instead of telling someone to contact you “if they need anything,” take the initiative and offer to help. “I would like to bring you some food. Would that be ok?” “Would it be alright if I mowed your yard so you won’t have to worry about it?” “I could pick up your children from school (or babysit for you) if that would be helpful.” A grieving person is going to hear “call me” so many times, they won’t remember who offered and may not even know what they need. Take the initiative.
“She will be missed.” This seems very simple, but a grieving person needs to know that they are not alone in their feelings. They need to know that others are feeling the loss deeply as well.
“He will always be remembered for his generosity/love of family/dedication to his work/etc.” A funeral visitation will be awash in generalities. Most people don’t know what to say. If there is a way that you can be specific and to help the family know about your personal connection to the deceased, that would be great. Likewise, if there are ways that you can affirm your love and affection for the deceased and draw attention to their positive qualities, that can help bring hope and comfort to a family.
Most importantly, we need to show up. Father Michael Rennier writes, “We must not flee. We must not flinch. Speak authentically, even if the words are hard to say. But I’ve found that fewer words are always better, because the reality of who we are as human beings and the love we share is so much bigger than a few words can describe.”