What NOT to Say


Before I walked into my daughter's illness, through her death, and then surfaced somewhere on the other side, I had experienced very few significant losses or painful circumstances in my life.

Sure, I had been in seasons that tested my faith, but NEVER like that. So, when I recall the words I had said and the ways I had interacted with friends who suffered deep losses before mine, I am heartbroken at my lack of empathy and love.  I had no experiences, no training and no guidance from which to speak to them, and it showed.  As I have grown to better understand what helps and what hurts when a person is grieving, I have apologized to many of them for my lack of compassion.  In recognizing my own failures and seeing firsthand the shortfall of others, I want to share a few thoughts on what to say and what not to say to the people you care about. 

First of all, loss encompasses much more than death, and grief is much more than crying.  It could be the loss of a marriage.  The loss of fertility.  The loss of a dream.  The loss of an ability.  The loss of a relationship.  And yes, the loss of a person.  If loss is an event, then grief is a process.  A very long, arduous, difficult and variable process of accepting whatever loss has been experienced. 

Pulling from my own experience and a really fabulous book by Nancy Guthrie, here are my top 3 suggestions for what NOT to say to someone in the process of grief:

  1. The absolute WORST thing you can say is nothing.  When you choose not to acknowledge a person's loss or pain, they assume that you don't care about it or them.  It may be due to discomfort or not knowing what to say or even being afraid of making their day "worse" (as if you could actually do that), but saying nothing is incredibly painful.  You are not expected to have answers or to share profound words, but choose to acknowledge their loss just as you would choose to acknowledge their joy.

  2. Don't make assumptions or comparisons.  You don't know how that person feels, and you don't know what their loss is like - even if you experienced something similar.  Don't compare their loss to be more or less than yours. As Nancy says, "You can't really compare pain.  It all just hurts."  And don't assume that just because they went to the mall or to the gym or back to work that they are "having a good day."  

  3. Don't say everything that floats through your head - even if it may be true.  Everything happens for a reason.  It must have been part of God's plan.  Something good will come out of this.  Or the ABSOLUTE worst one:  God must have needed another angel in Heaven.  While the first three may be founded on some truth, the last one is not at all Biblical.  In the midst of grief, words like that are just hard to receive. Early in my grief, I had trouble accepting that God would have planned for my daughter to die or that he could ever use it for anything defined as good, and it felt very trite to hear words that lacked any component of empathy. 

So what can you say?  It's hard to know.  I get it.  But here are my top 3 suggestions:

  1. Say nothing.  I know this doesn't seem to jive with the #1 thing NOT to say above, but stick with me. Don't ignore their loss; acknowledge it. But after that, it is just as important to be able to stop talking enough to listen.  Let them take the lead in what to talk about and just listen.  Don't try to answer all their questions or fix all their doubts or resolve all their pain.  Just show up and listen.

  2. Say "I'm sorry."  I am ashamed at how old I was before I knew how to simply say, "I'm sorry."  I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry you have to go through this.  I'm sad with you.  I am just so sorry. When you esteem someone's loss - whatever that loss is - you affirm that their pain is real and that alone can actually be a very powerful component in taking steps forward.  

  3. Say a name.  If the grief is related to a loved one's death, the most beautiful thing you can say is that person's name.  To hear Katie's name mentioned in a conversation or spoken of specifically is so sweet.  Just yesterday, as we ate lunch at a fast food restaurant, one of my kids commented on the saltiness of the french fries, and the other one said, "Oh, Katie would have loved them!"  We say names all day long as we speak to and about people, and it is really difficult to not hear the name of someone who still means so much.  Just say their name. 

I hope these suggestions can be helpful as you walk through the brokenness of this life with people you care about.  I would encourage you to read Nancy Guthrie's book, What grieving people wish you knew about what really helps (and what really hurts).  The people who have been the most helpful and supportive through our journey in grief have utilized many of the principles in this book.  

Remember: 

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.   - 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 (in reverse) 
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