10 Things NOT to Say or Do to Bereaved People

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In 1987, my wife and I lost our daughter Michelle when she was only one week old. That was a profound, life-changing experience for both of us. For one thing, it led me to become a writer. Over the years, much of my writing has focused on grief and tragedy, and how God brings people through it. In June and July, I’ll be helping teach a series on suffering at our church in Greenville, Texas. The following are some thoughts I jotted down in preparation for one of the messages.

 

We’ve all felt it.

That uncomfortable feeling when we’re around someone who has suffered a tragedy.

We want to help, to do something that will make the person feel better. But we’re not quite sure what to do or say. Unfortunately, in those moments it is all too easy to say or do things that unintentionally add to our friend’s pain.

We intend to help; instead we injure.

Following, in no particular order, are ten things not to do or say to people who are in deep pain.

1. Don’t say, “I know how you must feel.”

The truth is, you don’t know, even if you have gone through a similar loss. Every person’s experience of grief is unique to that individual.

2. Don’t withdraw from or avoid the person.

Friends of ours who had lost a child told about seeing someone from her church in a grocery store shortly after their tragedy. Instead of talking to them, the other person acted as if she hadn’t seen them (she had) and rushed into another aisle. Don’t withdraw from or avoid bereaved people. They’ve already lost a loved one. They don’t need to feel even more isolated.

3. Don’t be afraid of tears — theirs or yours.

Sometimes we avoid people in grief because we’re afraid that they will cry, or that we will cry, or both! It’s okay to cry. The Bible says that we are to “weep with those who weep.” Don’t be afraid of tears.

4. Don’t be afraid of silence.

Another reason we sometimes say unintentionally hurtful things is that we don’t know what to say, but we feel the need to fill the void. So we speak up and add to the other person’s pain. It’s okay to just sit quietly with your friend. In fact, it’s often better that way.

5. Don’t quote scripture at them.

The scriptures can be a great source of comfort, but only when the bereaved person is ready to hear them. Often, when a loss is fresh, we rush to quote “all things work together for good.” Don’t rush into this. Give the person time to get past the raw emotion before you quote Bible verses. And be sure that you’re truly doing it for them, not just because you want to break the silence.

6. Don’t offer theological observations.

When a person has suffered a loss and is in the throes of grief, it is not the time to offer reflections on God’s purpose for the tragedy. Enough said.

7. Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”

Often this is a genuine offer to help, but sometimes it just a way of breaking the silence. Either way, it comes across as empty most of the time. Instead, say “What can I do to help?”

8. Don’t offer trite sayings.

“God took her because he needed another angel.” “The good die young.” “God picks the best flowers from the garden first.” Yeah, right. Don’t say stuff like this. Trust me, it doesn’t help.

9. Don’t judge.

Most of the time we don’t do this to the person’s face. And usually it’s in the context of a larger tragedy. For example, after 9/11 some Christian leaders said that the attack was God’s judgment on America. Unless you are privy to the mind of God, don’t say things like this. You don’t know.

10. Don’t tell people how to (or how long to) grieve.

There is no timetable or recommended length of time for grieving. Never say to a bereaved person, “It’s been _______ months/years. Shouldn’t you be over this by now?”  Truth is, you never get “over” a tragedy. You just learn to live with it.

Are there any that I’ve missed? Join the discussion by adding your comments and thoughts below.

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About James Pence
Author, speaker, singer, performance chalk artist -- Drawing the stories of your heart. Follow me @jameshpence and check out my blog: Creative Chaos.

Comments

2 Responses to “10 Things NOT to Say or Do to Bereaved People”
  1. James Pence says:

    Excellent thoughts, Mary. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Mary Potter Kenyon says:

    Don’t take the opportunity to ponder out loud about your differing religious beliefs. Yes, on the day my husband died I overheard someone say “I don’t think I believe in Heaven..” I wanted to scream “Then where do you think he IS?” Don’t forget the “important” days…the anniversary of the death, for instance. It was three years this March and I still had a difficult time. It would have been nice to have gotten a card or phone call. In a couple of weeks I face the 4th wedding anniversary without him. Don’t ever say “Are you back to normal?” because there is no normal. Nothing will ever be the same.

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