Three things you should never say to someone who is grieving
… and what you might try instead
This article was first published on Eternity News in 2014, when Nancy Guthrie visited Australia for the Oxygen Conference. This week, Nancy is in the country again speaking at several Christian events and her message is just as relevant as it was two years ago.
At the Oxygen Conference in 2014, US author and speaker Nancy Guthrie gave practical advice on how to walk with someone through grief. She spoke of her own deep grief at the loss of two babies, born two years apart, to a rare genetic disorder. Our first post on her talks, 5 ways to disciple someone through grief was popular because we know this is something that touches everybody. Today, we dig deeper into suggestions on what to say when you can’t find the words … and what not to say.
Three things that are “never good” to say
1. Any sentence that begins with the words “Well, at least…”
Nancy said that the reason we say things like “Well, at least…” is we’re trying to get the person suffering to look on the bright side; to see a blessing in the midst of loss. But that can have the opposite only serves to diminish their loss.
2. “I knew someone who…”
“It’s humble to admit that I don’t have any words, and I wouldn’t presume to have something to say that would make this okay,”
“We [say] this because we want to let that person know that we have a sense of what they’re talking about,” said Nancy. However, those going through grief are all filled up on the inside with their own grief. So having to show compassion for someone else’s story is not really possible, and also, not very helpful. There can also be awkward moments when you haven’t thought through how the story of your ‘other friend’ ended. So best to just stay with the person in front of you.
3. Offering solutions
Nancy suggests caution in telling someone going through a health problem about a diet you’ve read about that could be the answer to their problem. Or suggesting a book that deals with the issue. “There can be an arrogance in that,” she said. “It says, ‘I’ve found all the answers that’ll make this okay for you.’” But often, the person you’re trying to comfort doesn’t need to be pointed to an expert or advice. And can you imagine, if everyone did this, how many pieces of advice or books that person would already have received?
Three things you could say instead
1. “I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s humble to admit that I don’t have any words, and I wouldn’t presume to have something to say that would make this okay,” said Nancy. “I’m just willing to enter into it with you, the mystery and the sorrow of it. And the agony of it. I’m just so sad with you – it’s really good to say that.”
Sometimes that doesn’t feel good to say because we want to end the conversation on an ‘up note’. But Nancy says that it’s a “really generous” thing to do, to acknowledge, “wow, this is terrible”.
2. For people specifically in a health crisis: “What’s this treatment process been like for you?”
The question “how are you” can often make a person who’s grieving feel like the asker really just wants a positive report, Nancy said. And often, the asker doesn’t know what to do with a negative one.
Many health crises are ongoing and long-term. So those around them want them to know how they’re tracking and express their desire to “stay in tune” with what’s going on. But, according to Nancy, the way people tend to do this is ask for a health report: “How did that treatment go?”, “What did the doctor say?”
“But imagine that you’re going through a very long-term health issue and everyone you meet asks you for a health report. That’s not much fun to keep going over the same details,” said Nancy.
And what if it’s never getting better? And the person never has the opportunity to say that they’re feeling better?
“To always give a health report can be exhausting.” So what else can you say?
You could try instead, “What’s this treatment process been like for you?”
Says Nancy, “It’s a more open question about what it’s like emotionally or physically or spiritually?”
3. “What have you guys been learning as you go through this? What’s it like when you’re sitting having chemo? What are the people around you like?”
Nancy says we need to give people permission to say “I am sad”.
This type of question can serve to help people look up from their own suffering and notice people and things around them. It’s also an opportunity to encourage them to see how God is changing them through their suffering.
The loss of a loved one
What matters most is not that you know the right thing to say, but that you say something.
Rather than ask “how are you?”, which feels like you have to give a report, Nancy suggests asking something like “What’s your grief like these days?”
The question “how are you” can often make a person who’s grieving feel like the asker really just wants a positive report, Nancy said. And often, the asker doesn’t know what to do with a negative one. A question that specifically references grief doesn’t assume the person isn’t feeling bad. And that’s important because in the midst of grief we can be sad for a long time. Nancy says we need to give people permission to say “I am sad”.
It can feel overwhelming and stressful to try and find the right thing to say to a friend going through something really hard, particularly if we don’t have similar experiences ourselves. Nancy emphasised though that what matters most is not that you know the right thing to say, but that you say something.