But first, WHAT NOT TO SAY…
“I know just how you feel. That happened to me once.” No one knows the sorrows lying deep within, and “each heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10). Better to say, “I can’t imagine how you are feeling.” To compare your suffering to theirs cheapens what they are going through. However, if they have just lost a child and you have also lost a child, you can identify. Just don’t talk about your experience. If they know you, they will feel your heart. Talk about their experience. Your comfort will mean much to them, because they will feel understood. Only talk about your suffering if you are asked, and then keep it short. God, the One person in the universe who knows how people feel, is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). This Scripture says that the comforted are the best comforters. It does not say that they share their story or give a sermon. It simply says that out of their experience of comfort they are equipped to offer it. So we ask ourselves, “What helped us? How did God use people to put courage back into us when we got the wind knocked out of us?” Long treatises didn’t help—never. Neither did their stories, even if it appeared similar, if they talked too much and listened too little. The comforter needs to take his or her cue from the griever, not vice versa. If you view yourself as the fixer of peoples’ sorrows, you will unfix them. Trust me: they will wish you had not come. Posture yourself as a fellow griever, not as the answer to their grief, not as the one who has gone through what they are going through and can assure them they will make it.
“This is why…” How dare you speak on behalf of God! “God took your wonderful child because she was so special and He wanted her in heaven with Him.” What a selfish God! Answers may come, or they may never come. When people are asking, “Why?” an attempted answer will slap them in the face. Psalm 22 for all time exalts the question that is cried out from the cross. When the horrendous battle was finished, Jesus entrusted Himself to the care of His Father. Did He receive His answer? It was not spoken. However, He cried out “My God, my God, why…?” and after finishing His assignment, He used an endearing term spoken in childlike trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” We can not and should not normally answer the questions grieving people ask, but we can hopefully connect them with the God of all comfort. This may come through a hug, a prayer, or a meal.
“There’s a reason for everything.” No there isn’t, at least not a good reason. Those who say there’s a reason for everything don’t realize that they are turning God into a monster. They are tripping over their sloppy theology, as Job’s friends did. We may incorrectly think that God causes sickness or death in order to teach us some kind of lesson, but for the life of us we don’t know what the lesson is. He takes away a job so we learn how to get by on nothing. He takes a beloved child from us so we learn to put more trust in Him. That doesn’t sound like the Father of Jesus Christ. When a young adult tried to find meaning in her mother’s attempted suicide by saying, “There’s a reason for everything,” we felt for her grief and told her about an enemy whose platform is stealing, killing, and destroying. We don’t come to the grieving with easy answers or trite formulas. We don’t come to try to make them happy. We don’t come to counsel; we come to cry.
“God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” We had just listened to a friend pour out his soul regarding years of pain. Then from a mature saint came the words just given. I wondered how that could possibly be interpreted as positive. There were two assumptions being made. The first is that God gave the friend all that pain. The second is that the oft-quoted statement is true, which it is not. When I hear what some people go through, I conclude that it is unbearable. The atrocities visited upon humanity are absolutely unbearable, such as holocaust victims. Would we have said to Job, “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear?” We have no right to say it because we haven’t experienced it. Period! People are perhaps attempting to quote that God will not allow you “to be tempted beyond what you can bear” (I Corinthians 10:13). That is dealing with overcoming temptation, not enduring suffering. Just recently a group of us were listening to a woman struggling with a traumatic accusation at work that could have resulted in the loss of her job. Having also come out of a broken relationship, this woman was reeling and could hardly get the words out. Then she heard the statement written above, only it was repeated two more times for emphasis. I know the woman who said it to be kind and caring. It is possible to have a loving heart and still wound people with harsh words.
“All things work together for good…” Great Scripture—comforting truth. Let them confess that after they have worked through their grief. Then it will bring comfort, not hit them like a hammer. It’s all about timing. You are not there to make sure they keep a good attitude or don’t forget to give thanks in all circumstances. You are there to empathize, which means entering into their sorrow with them, remembering the heart of a Father “who has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted,” who “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds,” and “who is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalms 22, 147, 34).
Eleven days after the most horrific shooting incident remembered in American history, a poem was written by someone in another state about the twenty dead children. The takeoff from “The Night Before Christmas” showed them in heaven being cared for by Jesus. Right word—wrong time, way too early to show the bright side of an unspeakable tragedy. Silence and sorrow would have served the grieving families far more.
Don’t have any expectation for the impact of your visit or your words. Otherwise, you may attempt to manipulate the one in grief. If you come with an agenda (cheer up your friend, offer them advice, answer their questions), it will lead to some kind of control.