When we lose a loved one to death, it seems like everyone has a word to share. Regardless of the circumstances or the difficulty of the loss, each person has a perspective on what can be said that is helpful. Unfortunately, sometimes things are said with good intentions that actually prove unhelpful. Sometimes words can even prove harmful. Though sincere, some things should never be said to a person grieving over the loss of a loved one or close friend. Some common things that are better not said include the following statements.
They are better off. This ignores the person’s present feelings and is insensitive to them. They do not need to hear that the person is better off. Later, they will come to possibly realize it. To say this is to imply that the caregiver’s care for the person was less desirable than the death of the individual. It makes their efforts to provide care and comfort inadequate. How can the person who has died possibly be better off than under the watchful eye of the caregiver now suffering through their death?
I know how you feel. None of us should be so presumptuous. If a person has never experienced the same type of death, one can never know exactly how one feels. If you have a similar experience, however, it may be okay to share your experience, but be sensitive. The point is not that you know how they feel, but rather that you want to help them put those feelings into proper context. And remember, feelings are never wrong, they just are. We can control what we think, but we cannot control what we feel.
God needed another angel. This actually makes light of the death and paints God as a tyrant who toys with our lives. What kind of God would take a child for instance? Doesn’t He have enough angels “How could He take my husband (or mother, or brother)” Doesn’t He care about my feelings? If God is so powerful, then He should be able to create more angels and not take the one person that I love more than anything.
It must be God’s judgment for something done. This is totally irresponsible and as insensitive as one can get. A person shared with me recently of a pastor who told her that she needed to be in church the next Sunday because God was clearly judging her family for their absence. He was visiting her husband who was critically ill in the hospital. This type of attitude and statement is absolutely unacceptable and may do irreparable damage.
This is for the best. We are not the one to decide if something like this is for the best of a person. Tell that to someone who has lost someone very close and whose life was filled with promise. It makes no sense. At the time of death, the last thing the grieving person needs to hear is what lesson they are supposed to be learning from this senseless (at the time) event. Again, think before you speak.
Do not give glib answers to the difficult questions surrounding death. Too many words are more harmful than too few. Face it; sometimes we do not know what to say; sometimes, it might be better to say nothing at all. Many times, a grieving individual needs our presence more than words. We are often, however, uncomfortable with silence. But we need to learn that not saying anything at all may be the best thing shared with those going through the difficult period following the death of someone close to them.
Roland Cavanaugh is on staff at a large church serving as the Pastor of Congregational Care and Sr. Adults. He has self-published a book about his late father, “For As Long As I Can.” You can find ordering information here.