Job’s friends sat with him for seven days without saying a word. He lost basically everything: 10 children, riches, health, and status. He even lost hope for a while. His friends sat with him and watched him mourn, and they were a comfort to him until they opened their mouths. What came from them afterward became a treatise on what not to say to someone mourning. It would not be proper to say those things to a healthy person, much less someone going through the problems Job faced.
If you have sat beside the bed of someone you were trying to support and encourage, you can probably empathize with those friends of Job. At least at the beginning, they were sincerely trying to help. It is possible to argue that even as hateful as their words became, they at least thought they were doing what needed to be done for the sake of Job’s life. Their cringe-worthy statements and implications about Job’s character and even the character of those children he lost can sometimes slip from our own mouths in various forms.
But it does little good to talk about the things we shouldn’t say without addressing what we should say to those who mourn. Here are some principles.
You Don’t Have To Say The ‘Right Things’ To Help Them Mourn
First of all, you can’t say anything that will transform the mourner to new heights. There is nothing you can say that will shake someone out of grief. Grief is a process. While you might be able to help guide someone to the next stage, people don’t usually need that guidance. We were made to be able to mourn.
Grief and mourning are the mind’s way of making sense of a new reality. It takes time. It’s a process each person takes in his or her own way. They probably don’t need your insights, and they certainly don’t expect you to talk them out of their grief. That does not mean you cannot help them, but understanding this principle will help keep you from becoming one of Job’s friends.
You Don’t Have To Stay A Long Time
Depending on your relationship with the mourner, your length of stay is not vital to your show of support. I’d say that the frequency of your visits accomplishes more than the length of the visits. I am not suggesting that you show up on their doorstep every day, but showing up more than once is a big help.
I made this mistake more than once. There was one particular family that for some reason I felt like needed me to stay a very long time. In fact, I basically camped out in their house for several days, arriving early, only to go home at night as they were about to go to bed. Thankfully, they were gracious enough to overlook my ridiculousness and accept me as part of the family, but they did not need me there that long.
How long is too long?
This is a matter of opinion and experience. Every family will be different, and there are many criteria to use in judging the situation. Here are a few questions to ask.
- Do they know you well? If you just met, they will be happy you stopped by, even if for half a minute.
- Is there some reasonable expectation that you would be there for longer times than their other friends? I would suggest that a church leader might have a little more expectation of sticking around a little while longer, but only if they are willing.
- Does their body language tell you they are uncomfortable that you are there with them? Many people are going to be uncomfortable because mourning is uncomfortable and it’s difficult for mourners to think about the needs of guests, but they WILL make the effort in most cases. Be sensitive that their felt need for being a good host or hostess. (I’ve found that women generally have a more difficult time “ignoring” a visitor and not turning on the ‘hostess’ charm.)
- Do they look tired and in need of a nap? Most people cannot feel comfortable enough around visitors to take a nap. Let them rest. Mourning is difficult and taxing, and sleep often evades them. Catnaps are very important!
Tell Them How You Feel
I can just about guarantee that the people you visit will feel a lot of the same emotions you feel, and many more emotions mixed with it. Be discreet, but it’s usually OK to tell someone how you feel about the situation, about the person who passed away, or any other situation people mourn. Obviously, it’s not OK to start a fight or insult people while they are mourning. (If you cannot visit them without feeling like you must address some negative emotions, wait a while before visiting. Deal with it when emotions are softened and the process of grief has passed.)
It’s good to tell people you love them. Be sincere and honest if you do. If you do not really know them, don’t tell them you love them. You can tell them you admire them, or are praying for them, or respect them, or feel bad for them, or any number of sentiments. But don’t make things up. It is likely that they will be very sensitive to any language they see as unusual or unfitting. Most mourners are gracious to others who are insincere because they understand that it is difficult for everyone, but try to resist the temptation of scoring browning points with them by going over the top with your support.
A word of caution is in order.
Don’t be overly affectionate. This is obvious in dealing with a mixture of the two genders. Mourning people already feel vulnerable without making matters worse. It’s difficult to make rigid rules here, but it’s usually best to watch for temptations when the mourner and comforter are not the same genders. The worst thing you could do in this situation is to leave an impression (real or imagined) of unwanted signs of physical or emotional attraction. The last thing they need is to worry about you being creepy. Don’t ignore anyone. Just be careful.
But that caution applies to more than dealing with the dangers of temptation. This is usually a problem with men who mourn. Common sense tells you that some men are OK with other men hugging them, and other men are not comfortable with it. Just be sensible, but don’t be afraid to give quick hugs.
Ditch The Cliche
Those great one-liners you hear people say in times of mourning are usually not the best things to say. We can be hurtful if we are not careful!
I will never forget the time I was speaking with an elderly man about his fifth round of cancer. As we stood in the foyer of our church building, he was understandably upset and a little gloomy about the idea of facing cancer treatments yet again. He as contemplating the end of his life, struggling with the idea of skipping treatments altogether for the quality of his life. I tried my best to empathize with him. And as he spoke, a well-meaning lady about half his age approached, slapped him on the back and said, “You wouldn’t be so upset if you had more faith!”
Shocked and dismayed, I didn’t even know how to respond, but this elderly gentleman (who was full of faith) just smiled as she walked away. And the look on his face when she was gone was very sad. He struggled with that comment. It hurt him to the core, and not because it was true. It hurt because it was MEAN. It’s not true that faith will not allow you to be sad. Try selling that idea to Jesus when He was in the garden praying and weeping before His death. And while we are at it:
- Not everything that happens is God’s will.
- God doesn’t take people away because they are too good for the rest of us.
- They probably WON’T feel better in a few days.
- You can’t know if this was a punishment from God for some supposed sin.
- Smiling will not make the pain go away.
Find A Way To Help; Don’t Ask How
There are no magic words or formulas except showing up. If all you do is greet them, tell them you care about them and spend a little time talking or letting them talk, that’s probably plenty of help. But don’t be afraid to ask for ways to help. When you ask, however, you might not get an answer. Most people in mourning feel like a burden to others. They see people coming to visit and they think that their crisis has inconvenienced their friends enough already. So don’t ask, “What can I do to help you” unless you already have a very good relationship with them. DO ASK about specific items.
- May I bring you a meal? (Better yet, just show up with some food. That is always helpful!)
- Could I go pick up your mail for you?
- Can I check on your pet for you?
- Maybe I could bring you some clothes from your house?
If you will think about their situation and what needs you would have if you were in their shoes, you will think of many ways to help. Then ask specifically and insist that you are not burdened. You will truly bless them if you can think of such ways to help.
What Would You Add?
These are many ideas I’ve gathered over the years, and much more could be written, but I am curious about YOUR experiences. What would you add to this list? Comment below so that others can learn how to better serve those who are mourning.