May 13, 2020

What (not) to say to someone who is grieving

By Marie C. Celano, LCPC, Director of Grace Counseling Ministries & Amanda Kim, Director of Communications

Oftentimes, we just want to make someone feel better or fix “it.” But when someone is grieving, the most important thing is to just be there. Give them the space they need to process to go through the journey of grief, in their own way, in their own timeline. Intentions can be good, but sometimes we can say something that might be unhelpful or damaging 

In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, christian author and professor at Duke Divinity School Kate Bowler navigates the aftermath of being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35.  She explores her struggle to understand the belief that all tragedies are tests of character and offers poignant insights and alternative responses to the often overused spiritual platitudes that offer “outrageous certainties.” Below are a few phrases that she suggests not to say to people who are suffering and a few of our own ideas of what to say.

Well, at least . . . We say this when we are trying to make people feel better. Unfortunately making a comparison doesn’t help, it just minimizes. 

In my long life, I’ve learned that . . .’ Remember we all experience life differently, be sensitive to how others might be experiencing their loss.

‘It’s going to get better. I promise.’ Only God knows whether things will get better. Instead offer to pray or a shoulder to cry on.

‘God needed an angel.’ This statement is always surprising because (a) it makes God look sadistic and needy and (b) angels are, according to Christian tradition, their own entities not created from dead people.

‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Kate says, “the only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.”

‘I’ve done some research and…’ It’s best to stay in your lane as friend or acquaintance unless they ask you to do research with them.

‘When my aunt had cancer…’  Again try not to compare.  Keep the focus on the one who is currently going through grief.

‘So how are the treatments going? How are you really?’ This is the tough one because the intent is to try and understand their world. But be careful not to ask questions like these, it’s hard for people to relive them. If you have the honor of being close to the one who is hurting they will share in their own time

“God never gives us more than we can handle” While it’s true that people’s faith can grow, or change during periods of pain, plenty of good people find it hard to hold on to faith when all they can see or feel is suffering. Instead of speaking theology, be the faith your friend needs. Help shoulder their burden because this statement might make them feel like they should be self-sufficient in handling hard times.

That was a long list, and you may think we  have a list just as long of things to say. However, it’s best to remember that rarely can a response make someone feel better. It is our connection with them that makes a difference. So next time you want to comfort someone in pain, here are a few things that might bring comfort.


“ I heard about ______________ (your dad, your job, etc.). I’m sorry.” People will often say “I’m sorry for your loss” which is also fine but is not as personal. The important thing is that you acknowledge the lost without trying to make them feel better or fix.

“I don’t know what to say.”  This is a perfect response because a lot of times we don’t know what to say. It shows you’re trying and you’re being vulnerable.

The fewer words the better.  Listen and reflect.   Learn to be comfortable with silence.

Send a text saying “I’m thinking of you/praying for you.” When sending these do it with discretion; base it on your relationship with them and their Christian walk. You may be compelled to send a Bible verse. If you do, be very thoughtful about the one you choose and why you’ve chosen it. Often it will be received well, but if a person is in the anger stage of grief it might be hard for them to receive

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