Hope Lutheran Church
What should I say?
Communicating with each other is sometimes easy, and sometimes incredibly difficult. The way we choose our words, regardless of how we communicate, differs from context to context. We will choose our words very carefully when preparing for a job interview, keep language “G” rated when kids are around, and will let our lips flap more wildly when shooting the breeze with friends and neighbors. While we are conditioned to prepare our words carefully in some settings, why do we often fail to prepare, or worse, freeze when choosing words for a surviving spouse or sibling at a visitation or after a funeral?
Good question, and it is one I’ve been asked a few times this summer. So let’s take a few minutes to think about it.
First, it is important to note that one’s presence IS more important than any words shared. A huge part of our life together is the ministry of showing up. Showing up when people are hungry, sick, homeless, lonely, hurting, celebrating, or in this case, grieving. In response to Joseph grieving his father Jacob’s death for seven days, (See Genesis 50) the Jewish people developed the tradition of sitting shiva, where neighbors, family, and friends simply show up with the grieving for 7 days. To show up is one of the prominent characteristics of who our God is, not content to stand far off, but to be “Immanuel, God with us”. (Matthew 1:23) We not only show up with real presence, but in cards, phone calls, and food offered to the grieving. To show up is to show you care, you are mindful of the grieving, and you love them.
Second, let’s be clear on what is probably not helpful. Death hurts. Some deaths, are occasionally easier to grieve while others can be much more difficult, but they ALL hurt. Funerals often serve as an opportunity to celebrate the life that was, and the eternal life that is, but they ALL still hurt. I believe our society today tries to minimize pain, stuff it under the covers, or ignore it. We have an aversion to seeing, acknowledging, and revealing the pain in this world, in others, and in us. This aversion has given rise to the pious platitudes or comments we’ve all heard and perhaps said (including me) that feebly attempt to smooth over the sharp edges of death. Here’s a list of a few of them, and my responses. (I’m not trying to condemn you, me, or us for saying these things in the past, but instead point out why they might not be helpful. Further, some immediate family members may lean on these as they grieve. Let them, and don’t correct them.)
“It was his time to go”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “God has a plan”, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Garbage. These statements assume that God is in the business of causing people to die because there is a grand script for life, and God must stick to it. God gave me this, and it’s not too much to handle? What if I can’t handle it right now? I refuse to believe God is pressing the “death” button for each person in this world.
“God called her home”, “God needed another angel in heaven”. Stinkier Garbage. Our beloved’s home is here, with us. Sure, there is a heavenly home that awaits, but in the midst of grief, these words become an attempt to make everything feel better. Additionally about the angels... God is God. God doesn’t need more angels. God already has “myriads of myriads, thousands of thousands” of angels. (Revelation 5:11) I refuse the believe God pushes the “death” button, and needs our loved ones to die, in order to fill the heavens with more angels.
“This has been so hard on me”, “I know what you feel like”. Though it might be hard for you, and though we all have had experiences of grief, each one is different. To assume to know exactly how it feels for the immediate family, is a little pretentious. Your tears, your sighs, your presence conveys this well enough. There will come a time to share the depths of our own grief with immediate family, but too often I’ve seen grieving families attempting to comfort those who are greeting them.
So what is helpful to say? In my experience, the following list includes a few of the more helpful ways to acknowledge the grief of others, express concern, love, and support.
“I’m sorry for your loss”, “I love you. We love you”. Short, direct, and to the point.
“I’m here for you”, “How are you, really”. Don’t say this if you don’t plan to be there, or if you aren’t prepared to really listen. If you say this, follow up with a phone call a few days, or a few weeks later. Again, many are uncomfortable being around grief. By promising to be here, and then actually being there to listen to their pain, to cry tears with them, to hug it out, to laugh in remembrance, to be... that matters.
Say nothing, “I don’t know what to say”. If you don’t know what to say, then say that. If nothing comes to mind, say nothing. Your presence is enough.
Finally, show up, because here’s the thing. Even if you say something good, unhelpful, weird, or nothing at all, those who are grieving know the good intention behind it. Trust me. You’ll get over saying it. They’ll get over hearing it. So show up, church. Show up in the uncomfortable grief of others. Then maybe, it won’t be as uncomfortable next time. Have other ideas to share?
Let me know. -Pastor Matt