How to Comfort a Grieving Friend
One of the most naturally intimidating things for us to do, or imagine doing, is to visit with a person who has just suffered the death of a loved one. We don’t know how to act; we don’t know what to say; we feel totally inadequate. Can you relate? Even as pastors, no matter how experienced we may be, this will never be our favorite task. It can be uncomfortable, awkward, and emotionally draining. I’m no expert, but as a pastor for many years and now the Pastor of Care at SBC, I have often been in this setting. And I’ve learned a few things, mostly from my own mistakes.
I’d like to share them with you, since visiting those who have just encountered the death of a parent, or spouse, or child is a responsibility we all should embrace. Here are some pieces of practical advice.
For the person who has just lost a loved one, comfort comes from a hand on the shoulder, a hug, a tender look. Your presence is huge! Don’t opt out of going by settling for, “I’ll just send flowers and a card.” Unless restricted by distance or health, you should be there.
My wife passed away at our home in the middle of the night 15 years ago. I can still vividly see the face of every single person who showed up in my living room the next day. Their presence alone delivered a message to my kids and me that we were loved and cared for. I’m sure you want to be one of those indelible faces in your friend’s lasting memory. It only happens when you show up.
The reason this type of visit intimidates us is that we often assume we need to show up and say something profound—which leads to the excuse that we don’t know what to say. Here’s some very freeing advice. Don’t prepare a message. Don’t go to preach. In fact, don’t plan to say anything at all. Your role is to listen. And if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking, silence is exactly what you need to bring.
Let’s take a lesson from Job’s three friends. When they heard that all 10 of his children had died, they showed up to comfort him. And Job 2:13 tells us that they sat with him for seven days, “with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” Their silent presence was all Job needed from them. Then, of course, they started talking incessantly and their words managed to intensify Job’s pain.
Joseph Bayly was a pastor and author. He and his wife lost three of their children—one during surgery at 18 days; one from leukemia at 5 years; another from a sledding accident at age 18. In his book, The View from a Hearse, he gives this account:
“I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I knew were true.
I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.
I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”
Use an economy of words; less is more. Do say, “I’m very sorry.” Don’t spout platitudes like, “She’s in a better place.” If that’s true, the grieving party already knows it. And please don’t say, “I know how you feel,” because it’s all too likely that you have no clue. Stick to what you do know—how you feel—by saying, “I’m so sad,” “I’m so sorry.”
I have heard well-meaning Christians tell a grieving individual, “Please don’t cry,” when, in fact, this is the most appropriate time to cry. At the grave of His friend, what did Jesus do? He wept. And those who saw Him said, “See how He loved him!” (John 11:36). We often mistakenly associate deep faith with stoicism. But rather than tears being an expression of shallow faith; tears are an expression of deep love. And Paul exhorted us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). So instead of trying to stifle the tears of a grieving friend, we should be crying along with him.
And let me add this. If you are going to say something beyond how sorry you are, talk about the person who died. Describe a character quality of that person that you admired. Tell a story of how that person did something special for you. You may be sharing a memory that the grieving individual was unaware of. That’s a gift. That’s therapeutic. Our natural inclination is to resist any mention of the deceased for fear that it may cause more grief. But recalling pleasant memories of the one who died does not add to the pain, it brings healing.
This may sound like an add-on. But it is possibly the most significant thing you can do for a grieving friend. Amid their pain, they may not know how or what to pray. They may be experiencing confusion or even anger toward God. You can essentially take them by the hand in a dark, dark moment and bring them to Jesus.
Don’t overstay your welcome. Only linger if the grieving person insists. And remember, you can always come back. Grief is unpredictable. It doesn’t end when people exit the memorial service. And for some it is a very long, lonely journey. The grieving person will likely need you again. So be available and keep caring.
I hope my practical advice can help minimize some of the intimidation you might feel next time you are in such a setting. But, more so, I hope it helps you realize what a significant role you can play in the life of a grieving friend. Joseph Bayly said it this way, “Time heals grief; love prevents scar tissue from forming.” Let’s step into another’s grief and allow God to use us as healing salve.