Sometimes you just wanna punch someone in church. Or yell. Or tell them to go away. Or at least you want to cringe, cover your ears, and tell them to stop.
Sometimes Christians have no clue what to say to a person who is grieving–so they say stupid things. Usually, they are trying to be kind, and reaching for something to bring the other person comfort. But often the speaker subconsciously is trying to comfort themselves instead of their friend. Here’s a list of ten things that Christians should never say to someone who’s grieving:
1. “It’s all in God’s plan.”
On the surface, the idea that the person’s death is not an accident sounds encouraging. We like to believe that God is in control, even in the worst of times. But this phrase introduces theological questions that are inappropriate to the grief moment. When a person is in the depth of their pain and loss, this is not the time to discuss predestination, free will, or whether a good God would permit or create such grief. Instead of trying to theologize, hold your opinions in your mind without speaking them. And if the grieving person tries to figure out God’s purposes, simply say nothing, or try something like, “Hmmmm….”
2. “God needed another angel” or “God needed another flower in his garden.”
This comment is related to the above stupid statement because it presumes to guess God’s plan. When we’re grieving, we often want to know why God took the person away—and this is an attempt to explain. The first problem is that we can’t guess what God’s motive was—or if God had a motive at all. The second problem is saying, “God cares more for a heavenly flower garden more than God cares for my loved one.” Or suggesting that if God could make another angel with the snap of a finger, God chose instead to rob you of your dear one. Instead, keep your opinion to yourself about the “why” of this death.
3. “God works in mysterious ways.”
This sounds good at first because it seeks to avoid the pitfalls of trying to guess God’s plan. It is, in fact, the trite and dismissive flip side to the same coin. It says that there is a plan but tells your hearer, “If you’re asking tough questions, I don’t really want to hear them.” Instead of dismissing a person’s feelings, allow them to ask without judgment. If you don’t have any answers, that’s fine—now’s not the time for answers anyway. But it’s possible to rest in the mystery without using trite and flippant cop-outs.
4. “They’re in heaven now.”
You don’t know that. Keep your opinions about God’s decisions to yourself. Personally, I’m a universalist to the degree that I believe everyone will experience God’s grace, eventually. But whether every person immediately enters eternal bliss, I’m not sure. Even with all the scriptures you have to fall back on, all you have is speculation, which isn’t good for another person’s grief moment. If they express this opinion, it’s best to agree–but you shouldn’t be the one to bring it up.
5. “They’re in hell now.”
Again, you don’t know that. Besides, even if it is your sincerest belief that the beloved deceased is currently agonizing in eternal flames–why would you tell someone that?! It’s the height of cruelty to add horror to grief by illustrating that picture for someone. And personally, I believe it would be the height of cruelty for the Almighty to execute such a vile judgment on God’s children that God loves! If the grieving person suggests that they believe their loved one to be in hell, I would simply say something like, “I trust that God is more loving and gracious than we can imagine, and I know God loves them and will do the right thing.”
6. “You’ll see them again one day.”
Honestly, this one isn’t so bad. The hope of seeing a loved one again can be immensely powerful. But this is something you should wait for the grieving person to say. When you say it, you are deflecting the need for your friend to deal with their own grief in the moment, by projecting forward to a future reunion. When a person grieves, they need to experience that pain in the present and deal with it honestly, now. When you tell them, “You’ll see them again one day,” you’re really comforting yourself so that you don’t have to deal with their present pain. Alternatively, you could say, “I know you’re hurting right now,” and leave it at that.
7. “Your pain will lessen over time.”
Again, this one isn’t horrible. Yet, like the one above, it’s a way of deflecting from the present moment into a time of future healing. It avoids the need to be here now, in the pain, and experience its profound and even crippling agony. When you project healing into the future, in a way, you’re saying “I can’t deal with this now–I just can’t wait for you to be back to normal.” Instead of telling them that their pain will get better (because maybe it won’t), tell them that you’re here for them now, and you will support them for as long as it takes.
8. “At least they’re not suffering anymore.”
You might think this is helpful because it points out that the person who passed is no longer in pain. Especially if the death itself or the time leading up to the death was difficult, this sounds like a helpful thing to say. Why not look for silver linings? Because your listener is likely thinking, “They’re not in pain–but I am!” Remember, no matter how excruciating the death was, the person you’re dealing with right now is not the person who died. It’s the person who survived. This isn’t about the suffering of the deceased–it’s about the agonizing grief of the living person in front of you. As strange as it sounds, don’t make it about the one who died. Make it about the grief your friend is going through.
9. “There’s a lesson we can learn from this…”
Stop! Just stop! Now is not the moment to get preachy or soap-boxy. This is not a teachable moment. Even if the lesson you want to impart is dead right, it’s dead wrong. The grieving person will have plenty of quiet time ahead to reflect on what they might learn from recent events. Let the Holy Spirit do the work of teaching, convicting, or saying whatever it is that you’re dying to get off your chest. Now’s the time to keep your lessons to yourself.
10. “I know how you feel.”
Maybe you do, but you probably don’t. No doubt you’ve lost loved ones, too. You might know how it feels to lose a parent, but you’ve never lost their parent. You might have lost a child, but you’ve never lost their child. So, you really don’t know how they’re feeling right now. You could imagine it, based on your own experiences. You might even come close to grasping it–but you can’t quite get into the other person’s head and heart. Besides, now’s not the time to make it about you. This is their time, not yours. Don’t tell them how you felt when you lost that significant person in your life–now is not your turn.
Instead of that, do this…
I get it–it’s awkward when someone you love loses someone they love. You want to say something, to do something, to help them feel better. You pray for the wisdom to know what to do. Sometimes you get it wrong–but here’s how you can get it right. Instead of searching for something comforting to say, look for something you can do. Let your casseroles, hugs, and volunteer lawn maintenance say it all. Let yours be a ministry of presence that reassures them and lets them know you’re listening. Because right now, they don’t need answers. They just need your love.