Guest Post by: Elizabeth Spencer
I wasn’t worried when the phone rang so early that cold January morning.
It was a Tuesday—Bible study day. I thought one of my early-bird ladies was taking me up on my offer to call anytime after 5:30 a.m. if she wasn’t going to be at our meeting that week.
It was not one of my study sisters calling.
The voice on the other end of the line was so distorted by shock and grief, I barely recognized it as my mother-in-law’s. Sobbing, she told me that my father-in-law had died a little more than an hour earlier. My husband’s best friend, business adviser, spiritual mentor, and earthly model of Abba had gone to sleep an active, healthy, fit 62-year-old and had awoken in the presence of his Savior.
Without a shred of advance warning, our family was thrown into what Ecclesiastes calls “a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4 NAS).
Over the next year and beyond that we walked the necessary way of grief, a few repeated phrases offered to us by family and friends soothed our hurting hearts. Now, we try to honor 2 Corinthians 1:4 by comforting others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted” (NAS).
Do you know someone who has been thrust into a season of sorrow? Are you wondering what to say (or not to say) to them? Are you questioning whether there’s anything you can say that will make any good difference?
Here are the words it helped us to hear while we grieved.
- “I’m so sorry.” If you’ve never been on the receiving end of this under-used and under-appreciated phrase, you might doubt its worth. Don’t. If you mean them, these words are simply powerful and powerfully simple.
When our family was immersed in the pain of loss, I was stunned by how comforted I felt hearing or reading these five words: “We are so very sorry.” Imbued with genuine sympathy, this repeated phrase helped ease our pain by telling us others shared it. As we were washed in them again and again, these words softened our sorrow.
- “Would it be alright if I …?” I think this is a better and more useful phrase than the oft-offered, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” While that gesture may be heartfelt, it puts too much pressure on an already-overwhelmed person to take action. It ask them to figure out what is needed and then take steps to communicate that need.
After my father-in-law’s passing, our family was fed, literally and emotionally, by friends who said, “I have a meal to drop off. Would it be okay if I brought it over tomorrow at 2?”
- “How are you doing today?” After the rush of decisions and preparations and services and correspondence has passed, those on the outside of grief sometimes assume life has returned to normal. But “normal” may be a very long time in coming for the mourners.
In Victorian society, traditional black dress and arm bands communicated to the public that the person so garbed had experienced a loss and should be treated gently. Such stark attire told those who saw them, “Something has happened to this person. Life is not usual for them now. Give them grace and tenderness.”
But in our modern society, the grieved are expected to return to regular habits, behaviors, and moods almost instantly. Asking your friend or acquaintance “how are you doing today?” weeks or months after their loss assures them you understand they are living a new reality and grants them freedom to share their ongoing sadness.
- “I remember when…” After he lost his dad, my husband was deeply blessed by people who shared stories and memories of a man who meant so much to so many. When you’re living outside the dwelling place of mourning, you might think mentioning the name of the person who has died will only sharpen the grief of those living in it.
But the mourners need to know that they are not alone in missing and remembering the person they lost. Tell the grieving person in your life how their loved one touched you. When appropriate, share a funny story. Finish this phrase: “one of my favorite things about __________ was…” This kind of comfort communicates healing truths: “Your loved one was special to me. I miss him, too. He is not forgotten.”
Last Father’s Day, I asked my husband, “Do you feel any different than you did that first Father’s Day without your dad? Can you tell a difference?” Without hesitation, he answered, “Oh, yes. I still miss him every day, but it’s not that sick-to-my-stomach feeling I had then.”
I was so grateful for his quick answer and the certainty behind it. Our sweet and loving Abba had worked through time and the words of those who mourned with us as we mourned.
He had brought us through a season of grieving into a new season of dancing.
And the God of all comfort can use your words, too, as a sweet salve for a hurting soul.
Elizabeth Spencer says
Thank you so much, Debra…that is very encouraging to read! I think I have some idea what you mean about being told what NOT to say: things like “your loved one is in a better place” and “at least they’re not suffering any more.” Until we were on the receiving end of comfort, I did not know how much a safe but powerful “I’m so sorry” could soothe and heal. No doubt you will offer much solace to mourners in your life simply because you care about what to say and what not to say. And sometimes, what helps comes as a surprise: when my father-in-law died, almost the first thing my then-6-year-old said to my very newly widowed mother-in-law was, “Well, at least Papa didn’t die and go to hell.” I cringed, but my mother-in-law told me those words actually brought her joy. Because while uncensored and candid, they were, blessedly, true. Thank you for taking time to read and to comment!
Debra Seiling says
I really appreciated this post. I’ve been told that so many of the things we say to those who mourn are counterproductive. That makes me feel awkward about saying anything that has the potential for making it worse for those who grieve. You post gave me some insight into that. Thanks!