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What Do You Say When You Don't Know What to Say?

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

My heart broke when I read the obituary. A young woman had tragically lost her life. I felt I needed to do something for her family, but was not sure what to do. What would I say? I have lost family members to death, but nothing compares to the loss of a child. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Actually, I didn’t know what would be appropriate.

It is so easy to say the wrong thing, and the last thing I wanted to do was make this horrendous heartbreak worse for the family. I did some research and discovered that there are some things that you should—and should not—say to a grieving family.

A hug is usually appreciated, and you can tell the family that you love them and are praying for them; then do not forget to do that, especially in the weeks and months following the loss. It is OK to tell them you are sorry, and that your heart is breaking, too. One grieving grandmother told me that when she went to her family doctor for a checkup he told her that there were just no words to describe what he was feeling. In doing this, he conveyed his sympathy without diminishing the enormity of the loss.

You can also take your cues from the person who is grieving. They may want to talk about their family member, or reminisce about a certain time in their loved one’s life. The best way to show your sympathy is just to be there to listen and support them.

In our Southern culture, bringing food is a big part of showing how much we care. If you don’t like to cook, though, don’t despair. Grab a stack of disposable plates, cups, napkins, and utensils to bring to the family. I must admit I had never thought to do this until my sister-in-law passed away. A couple of dear souls did just that, and it kept us from having to wash dishes during that trying time.

Two years later, when we lost my husband’s mother, a relative offered to stay at our house during the visitation and funeral service. This is a good and practical thing to do. The service times are published in the newspaper, and it is a prime opportunity for a thief to break in an unoccupied house.

There are some things that should not be voiced to a family that is suffering through grief. Don’t tell them that Heaven has gained another angel. I do not believe that we become angels when we die. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 1:14 “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” I also do not believe that our loved ones who have gone on before us are watching over us. A while back I watched a TV show about a mother whose son had died, and she actually prayed to him for help and guidance every day!

Another cliché that is often used is telling the grieving family that their loved one is in a better place. This may be true, but it does not diminish the grief they are feeling right now. The same is true for “Everything happens for a reason”. What they need right now is comfort and support. If God chooses to enlighten them sometime in the future about their loved one’s passing that is wonderful, but saying this when their pain is fresh will not comfort grief-stricken parents who are trying to come to grips with the loss of their child. Also, do not say, “I know just how you feel” unless you have walked in their shoes.

When all is said and done, the best thing to do is to rely on your common sense. As best you can, think how you would feel in a similar situation, and refrain from saying anything that you think would make your hurt worse. By all means, though, be there to offer Christ-like love. Many times, that is enough.

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