I was at church one Sunday, about a year after my husband died. I freely share that I rarely escaped a service sans tears. Every week I sat in the same sanctuary, same side, sometimes even the same seat, where I planted Sunday after Sunday with my husband, whose skin I could still feel beside me. Periodically, the tears were so abundant (read uncontrollable) that I would escape to the bathroom mid-sermon to just sob them out.
On this particular Sunday, I was once again recovering from my failure to control my emotions, feeling pretty raw and down. Someone from my church ripped me a new wound as we walked out the front doors into the sunshine and she proclaimed, “You just don’t have enough faith!”
At that point my “problem” was not about attending church, reading my Bible or believing in God. It was not a lack of faith … it was simply a broken heart.
I’ve never forgotten that moment.
She wasn’t the only one who slung arrows into the already gaping holes of my soul. A relative angrily told me that I needed counseling, a ministry leader suggested I’d feel better if I started a women’s Bible study, a pastor whose sole role was to fill seats in the church’s recovery program said I needed to join the co-dependency support group, and one family member never said a word to me. Not ever.
Countless acquaintances asked me why I didn’t use Internet dating sites, starting after barely a year of widowhood. I encourage you: don’t do this. I wasn’t looking to fill a gap; I was looking to heal.
So having been down the receiving road of sympathy I want to share a few suggestions on “what not to say” to someone who is grieving:
• Don’t avoid. The reality is present whether you acknowledge it or not.
• Don’t tell them they lack faith; layering discouragement (and judgement) upon hurt is never a good idea.
• Don’t ask for the details unless they are offered; the intimate details of the wound aren’t necessary unless they are offered.
• Don’t say, “I know how you feel” unless you have experienced a similar loss. And even if you have, proceed gently – they may walk through it differently than you.
• Don’t tell them, “I don’t know what to say.” Nobody really does. But that statement makes is appear the situation is more about your feelings than the person you’re trying to comfort.
• Don’t create a timeline for their healing; sorrows heal at different rates in different people.
• Don’t push them into counseling; it’s not an automatic fix.
• Don’t tell them to pick themselves back up and (fill in the blank). They will (fill in the blank) when they are ready.
Initially, I could not handle my husband’s death! It took me time to work through my loss. In reality, loss never leaves, but mends as best it can.
I knew I needed God. I needed Him before I lost my husband and have needed Him every day since. What I really needed from those around me was a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, or a phone line that was open. I just needed tender hearts.
Just someone to say, “I’m sorry.”
That is truly the kindest thing anyone ever said to me in the aftermath of my husband’s death, whether they were a friend or stranger. One of my sweet friends, a woman who has done years of counseling and is pretty brilliant, who even authored the notes on the Psalms in a best-selling Bible, threw her arms around me and said “I’m sorry!” To this day I still remember it vividly. She could have thrown dozens of Scriptures at me (she knew them) or gone into counseling mode (her expertise). Instead, she offered her arms and her ears and her heart anytime I needed them, and simply said:
Simple, few and powerful words, words that convey compassion and kindness and empathy … and lack judgment of any kind. Two words that have the ability to align vastly different hearts and lives.
Don’t struggle with what to say to someone hurting. Care for their heart with all of yours, then just add those two words: “I’m sorry”.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15
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