I officiated a funeral recently. It was the third funeral I’ve officiated since my late wife, Amanda, passed away. I never did one before she passed and always dreaded the day I would. Even the thought of standing in front of a group of grieving family and friends attempting to provide comfort made my hands clammy, my pulse race, and my mouth go dry. Now that I’ve experienced the loss of the person closest to me in this whole world, you would think I would feel differently about funerals. You would think I’d step into those settings as more of an expert—like a three-time returning champion stepping back into the coliseum to lay waste to an opponent he’s already defeated thrice before.
QUITE THE CONTRARY.
I walked into the funeral home last week with those same clammy hands, that same racing pulse, and that same dry mouth. I sat on the front row of the little ceremony room sipping from a plastic cup of water—the deceased’s wife and family to my right. His daughter, one of the volunteers at my church, stroked her mom’s hand with one of hers and clutched a tissue with the other. Rather than a veteran striding confidently into his arena, I approached the podium to begin the service shaking like a rookie stepping onto the field for the first time. Even though I’ve been walking through the gravest of the valleys the last eighteen months, I was at a loss as to how to give hope to this family who had just stepped into theirs.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same way. Whether you have or haven’t lost someone close to you, you’ve probably known someone who has. You’ve probably been faced with a moment like this. Perhaps not having to speak publicly to a group of grieving folks, but maybe you’ve walked across a room to console someone face-to-face and with each step searched for the words to say that could bring some kind of comfort, answers, and reasoning for their pain. This is perhaps one of the most difficult arena’s to step into, trying to empathize with someone’s pain enough to care for them and help them through it. So how do we do it? More importantly how do we do it effectively? Maybe my experience can provide some helpful advice as you’re trying to help someone you care about who is hurting.
I THINK THE FIRST THING TO DO IS ASK.
If you’re truly wanting to be helpful during these devastating times ask what the person needs . . . but I wouldn’t ask the actual grieving person. More than likely he/she won’t know. They are so overwhelmed and foggy from grief, they have no idea what to tell you they need in that moment. There were so many people who told me, “please let me know if you need anything.” I would politely nod, try to file it away, but after a couple dozen of these gestures I easily forgot who had made the offer. Amazingly, I find myself stumbling through saying these very words when I try to comfort someone who’s experienced loss–“please let me know if there’s anything I can do”–It’s easy to say, but not always helpful.
Instead ask someone who is close to the grieving party what they really need. Meals? House-cleaning? Laundry? Yard work? A massage? These small tangible acts of service speak volumes in times of loss. These are the things they need that they can’t do for themselves or, in some instances, don’t even know they need.
When Amanda passed there were mobs of people showering my family and me with a myriad of things—trinkets, tokens, picture frames, lava lamps, angels, wind chimes, most of which bearing some pithy theological phrase of hope or comfort. If it could be packed and shipped, we received it. While some of these were sweet and sentimental, most of them—if I’m honest—wound up shoved into a closet or a box to either re-gift or throw into the garbage. Please don’t misunderstand me, I truly appreciated the sentiment and the thought, but the last thing I needed in my life at this point was more clutter. My life already felt so chaotic. All in one moment I was forced to take on the responsibilities of a single parent without a home (my home had become a crime scene), a church to pastor, and a livelihood to consider—all the while trying to wade through the murky waters of loneliness, anger, frustration, loss, fear, anxiety, depression, and hatred toward the perpetrators who so flippantly took the life of my bride. In the wake of this, it’s tough to say it was wind chimes and porcelain cherubs that cheered me up. You see the challenge?
Again, everyone had very good intentions. I certainly don’t fault people for that. And I’m grateful for all who cared enough to send us something.
But if I’m giving you advice on how to tangibly help a friend walking through loss, I would tell you, steer clear of the sentimental memorabilia and shower them with something practical. The best gifts we received were simple things like diapers, wipes, gift cards, cash, meals, trips, offers to stay in vacation homes as a family, and books (If you want to know some helpful books check out this post I wrote). These were things we could actually use as we tried to put the broken pieces of our life back together.
THE SECOND THING I WOULD TELL YOU IS WHAT YOU DO MATTERS MORE THAN WHAT YOU SAY.
If we’re honest, choosing a gift for the grieving party isn’t the hardest part, is it? It’s choosing the right words to say. Unfortunately I experienced—as I’m sure you have—the gamut of “consoling” jargon, most of which I could take into a theological debate arena and rip to shreds. Most of us have, with great intentions, been guilty of saying some of these things. Can I please caution you NOT to say these 6 things (or anything like them):
1. “God needed another angel.” No He didn’t! God doesn’t NEED anything or anyone! I’m pretty sure Weston and I need her more than He does!
2. “At least she’s in a better place” I know she is! And I’m super grateful for that, BUT SHE’S NOT HERE!! That’s what hurts right now!
3. “It was God’s plan and sometimes His plan doesn’t make sense.” No it wasn’t! Death was not part of God’s original plan for humanity! It was Satan that came to steal, kill, and destroy! Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death even though He KNEW He was going to raise him. Why? Because he observed everyone else weeping and was broken-hearted over the devastation and hurt sin has caused this world.
4. “Your loved one would want you to be happy.” (often people say that because they’re uncomfortable with your sadness) Oh ok. You’re right. I’m just supposed to POOF, stop being sad because she wouldn’t want me to be!
5. “Cherish the good memories; they’ll bring you peace” But the memories are what bring so much pain right now. At this moment having loved and lost doesn’t seem better than never having loved at all.
6. “Did you see the Yankees game last night?” Really? You think I’m thinking about sports right now?
Again, I don’t fault people for trying to say the right things. I certainly say a number of less than helpful quips when I’m trying to console. I still have trouble knowing what words to use. I find one of my greatest temptations is to say this: “I understand how you feel.“ After all I’ve experienced some of the deepest loss anyone can imagine.
Even still, my situation is different than the next person’s. And so is my pain. It’s impossible to compare pain. Emotional pain is on a spectrum. Not necessarily of mere intensity but also of variation. The pain of divorce isn’t quite like the pain of losing a spouse. The pain of losing a spouse isn’t quite like the pain of losing a child or a parent. The pain of losing a parent isn’t even quite like someone else’s pain of losing a parent.
The truth is, we unnecessarily feel like we need to say things because we want to put a pretty bow around everything helping us make sense of the situation. Our tendency is to either avoid or try to understand in situations we can’t make sense of. Sometimes we focus more on trying to understand and rescue that person so that we can be the hero – instead of letting Jesus be the hero. God says that HE works all things together for the good. Isn’t it a freeing thing to realize there is nothing we can say in those moments that will propel or prevent God from working this situation into good?
I know it seems like the greatest thing you can do is try to empathize with your words. The problem is it’s both impossible and unhelpful. It doesn’t help knowing people know how I feel, it helps knowing people care, that people are near, that they show up, that they’re present. Don’t under-estimate the power of showing up and being present in that person’s life. After all this is what Jesus did with his friends Mary and Martha when they lost Lazarus. Scripture says Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. But the impact he had in Lazarus’ family that day wasn’t in that Jesus himself had and would experience pain. In fact it was his own experience in pain that taught him the power of presence. Show up. Hold. Hug. Cry. And listen. If you can’t show up, call, text, send a note. And when you’re searching for the words to say, default to this:
“I’M SO SORRY. I CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT YOU’RE FEELING RIGHT NOW AND I HONESTLY DON’T HAVE THE WORDS. BUT I CARE ABOUT YOU, I’M PRAYING FOR YOU. I’M HURTING WITH YOU, AND I LOVE YOU.”
That’s it. No cheesy hallmark gift. No stumbling through words. No pressure to be the valiant rescuer for the grieving. In the weeks following Amanda’s death, I can’t tell you one thing someone said to me. But I can tell you who showed up. Who was by my side. Who was near. And who gave me my space when I needed it.
So as I approached the podium last week to speak lifting words into the heavy fog of grief that filled that room, a thought came to me—it’s not going to matter what I say. I mean, certainly it matters a little. I couldn’t say something stupid and I needed to be considerate and intentional with my words. But the reality was, no words that I said was going to provide answers or make sense of God’s love in the hellish fire of death. What matters most is that I care and that I was there.