When Rev. Emily C. Heath served as a chaplain in the emergency department of a children’s hospital with a level one trauma center, she saw countless senseless tragedies, and came to recognize how difficult it is for people to find appropriate words of comfort.
Based on her experience, she offers her advice (Huffiington Post, 12.14.2012) regarding five things NOT to say, and five things she has found helpful to say, to grieving family and friends. I would add that most of these suggestions are applicable to ALL grieving people, and not just to parents grieving the loss of their children.
Five things not to say to grieving family and friends:
1. “God just needed another angel.”
Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills kids to fill celestial openings is neither faithful to God, nor helpful to grieving parents.
2. “Thank goodness you have other children,” or, “You’re young. You can have more kids.”
Children are not interchangeable or replaceable. The loss of a child will always be a loss, no matter how many other children a parent has or will have.
3. “He/she was just on loan to you from God.”
The message is that God is so capricious that God will break parents’ hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.
4. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Actually, some people do get a lot more than any one person should ever have to handle. And it doesn’t come from God. Don’t trivialize someone’s grief with a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality.
5. “We may not understand it, but this was God’s will.”
Unless you are God, don’t use this line.
Five things to say:
1. “I don’t believe God wanted this or willed it.”
A grieving friend or family member is likely to hear that this is God’s will from a number of other people. Affirm the idea that it may very well not be.
2. “It’s okay to be angry, and I’m a safe person for you express that anger to if you need it.”
Anger is an essential part of the grieving process, but many don’t know where to talk about it because they are often silenced by others when they express their feelings. (For instance, they may be told they have no right to be angry at God.) By saying you are a safe person to share all feelings, including anger, with, you help the grieving person know where they can turn.
3. “It’s not okay.”
It seems so obvious, but sometimes this doesn’t get said. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit. Sometimes nothing works out right. And sometimes there is no way to fix it. Naming it can be helpful for some because it lets them know you won’t sugarcoat their grief.
4. “I don’t know why this happened.”
When trauma happens, the shock and emotion comes first. But not long after comes our human need to try to explain “why?” The reality is that often we cannot. The grieving person will likely have heard a lot of theories about why a trauma occurred. Sometimes it’s best not to add to the chorus, but to just acknowledge what you do not know.
5. “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here to support you in whatever way feels best.”
Even if you have faced a similar loss, remember that each loss is different. Saying “I know how you’re feeling” is often untrue. Instead, listen to how the grieving person is feeling. And then ask what you can do to help. Then, do it and respect the boundaries around what they don’t want help with at this point. You will be putting some control back into the hands of the grieving person, who often feels like they have lost so much of it.
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Rev. Heath currently serves as pastor of West Dover Congregational Church (Vermont); she is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC).