by Steven Norris

     The math is pretty convincing: one out of every one person will die. At some point we will all find ourselves in the receiving line at a funeral home because someone we care for has experienced loss. What do you say in those moments? How can you be an agent of healing to a friend in turmoil? As a pastor, I beg you: for the love of everything holy, please do not say any of the following to a grieving family. You may mean well, but you will likely do more damage than good.

     “I know how you feel.” This may seem helpful. After all, if a friend’s mother has died and you experienced the loss of your mother five years ago, you will be tempted to assume that your grief is similar. However, you may be profoundly wrong. All grief is different. All families, relationships, and circumstances are different. You don’t know for certain how the person feels. Please don’t make assumptions.

     “At least…” This is usually followed by any number of statements meant to help the person see the bigger picture. They include things like “…he didn’t suffer,” “…she made it to her birthday,” “…he died doing what he loved,” “…it wasn’t worse,” “…you have other children,” “…you are young and can remarry,” or “…she lived a full life.” All of these statements seek to minimize pain. In the face of death, nothing is more acute than the pain of loss.

     “Let me know what I can do.” Again, we usually mean this in the best sense. Much of the time, we are not certain what the family needs. We want to be helpful, but we are waiting for someone to give us direction and/or permission. The problem is that this response places the burden on the grieving individual to reach out for help. It puts one more thing on their plate at a time when friends and family might look for ways to reduce decisions and responsibilities. Especially if you have been through a similar situation, just offer specific help: “Can I bring you a casserole…mow your grass…give your kids a ride to school…wash your car?”

     “Don’t cry.” (Or its twin sister, “Go ahead and cry.”) When we say things like this, we are subtly giving the message, “I am not comfortable with the way you are choosing to grieve.” Funerals are a perfectly acceptable place for an outpouring of emotion. However, it is also perfectly ok if someone chooses not to be effusive with their tears or grief. Either way, be careful not to make it about you.  

     Nothing. Sometimes, when we don’t know what to say, we choose to keep our distance. We don’t show up to the visitation because we are uncomfortable. We don’t pick up the phone because we don’t want to bother the person (after all, they have so much to deal with right now). Silence can be the most painful and deafening response of all in times of great loss.

     At the end of the day, grieving is both a personal and a communal act. May we always remember that we are called to be in this life together.