21 Things Not to Say to a Hurting Friend

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).

This may be the most unbelievable article we’ve ever posted on this website.

You will not believe what some people say to a bereaved parent or the family member of someone tragically injured.

Recently, while talking to Holly and her mother, I began to pick up on some truly bizarre things people said to them after Holly’s young-adult brother Seth’s tragic automobile accident that left him severely disabled, completely helpless, and almost totally without the ability to communicate. Holly describes his condition as “a low level of consciousness due to a profound brain injury.”

Frankly, I was overwhelmed by some of the things people have said to this family. I had no idea people could be so thoughtless, so clueless, so heartless–all in the name of the Lord and ostensibly, with the best of intentions.

After our visit, I asked if Holly and Mary–the sister and mother of Seth–could write down some of the things people have said to them over the several years Seth has been in this sad condition. (Our discussion centered around the strange comments–that’s where our greatest teaching for this blog focuses–but at the end of this article, Holly shares some of the helpful words that were spoken.)

My single contribution to the discussion was something our family pastor back in Alabama told me. When his teenage son was killed in a motorcycle accident, the family and community were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone was genuinely concerned. Most people said kind and supportive things. However, a few comments shocked even the pastor.

One lady told the bereaved pastor, “I know exactly how you feel. When my son went off to college, I thought my heart would break.” The pastor smiled and thanked her, but the thought that filled his mind was, “Well, did your son come back from college? Because my son is never coming back!”

Holly wanted me to emphasize that all the Christian folks who have said these things to us have good intentions. Everyone genuinely thinks they’re offering something helpful. Holly is probably more charitable than I am. Not everyone who deigns to speak for God has the best interests of others at heart.

Here they are, in the order in which she sent them along….

1. “If you just had enough faith, your son would be healed.”

The variations on this theme were endless. One wonders where people came up with the notion that God will heal everyone who has faith enough. Do they think the hospitals are populated only by the sinful and faithless?

2. “God wants to heal your brother. It’s your parents’ fault that he does not sit up in that bed, completely restored, because they will not get rid of their doubts and have faith!”

Holly said, “The poor guy. Apparently, God really wants to heal Seth, but His hands are tied because the victim’s parents don’t have enough faith!”

If the Lord healed everyone of everything, no one would ever die. The story of Job in the Old Testament clearly speaks to this idea that suffering results from sin. Now all we have to do is get the Lord’s people to read the Bible.

3. “You need to have faith, not that your son can be healed, but to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is already healed, and he will be.”

Holly says, “Now that one just does not begin to make sense!” I respond, “You haven’t been listening to the right faith healers on television, my sister.”

The “name it and claim it” philosophy holds that when you believe it strongly enough, that will make it a reality. The best answer to this shallow heresy is: “Preach it in Haiti. I’d like to see those people prosper. Then I promise you I’ll believe.”

4. “What do you think God is trying to teach you through this?”

This is the fix-it mentality. People see a tragedy and want to make it right. Never mind that they are not capable and are giving counsel far out of their field of expertise, assuming they have one.

5. “Remember, pastor–” (Oh! Did I tell you that Holly and Seth’s father is a pastor?) “It says in Romans that ‘God works all things together for good.'”

The family wishes they had a nickel for each time they’ve heard that. Holly comments that it falls under the category of “trite but true.”

6. “You know, you’re really lucky. I’ve heard that being an empty-nester is really hard. Now, you’ll never have to go through that!”

The reason he will never leave home is that Seth will remain completely dependent on his parents’ care the rest of his life. His life-expectancy (I asked about this) is around 15 years, half of which he has already lived in this condition.

7. “You know, you’re really lucky. I was watching a TV show last night that said those who use their brains every day are less likely to become senile in old age. So taking care of your son is keeping you young and sharp.”

I know, I know. You’re doubting that anyone actually said something this stupid. They did.

8. “Here’s why I think God did this.”

The family member on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom thinks to him/herself, “Really? You presume to know the mind of God?”

Two explanations as to “why God did this” stand out in Holly’s mind:

a) “Your son is a sacrificial lamb, showing the rest of us how to live.”

This person’s God seems to be the epitome of cruelty.

b) “He was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. So, God must have looked into the future and seen that he would raise a family and teach them not to wear their seatbelts and one day they would all have been killed in an accident. So, God did this to spare his future family.”

That one leaves me speechless.

9. “You must feel glad that where your son is now”–in a semi-vegetative state– “he can no longer sin!”

You know, the ability to sin is not the worst thing in the world. The inability to sin (or anything else!) at all is far, far worse.

10. (In response to Mary’s saying she was exhausted from the 24/7 routine of caring for Seth, including rising in the middle of the night, every night, someone said:) “Well, you know, it’s not such a big deal. Lots of people who have newborn babies at home have to do the same thing.”

There are times when we do well just to keep our mouths shut and say nothing. Clearly, this was one of those times for a friend of the Esvelt family. Sadly, he/she chose not to take that precious opportunity.

11. “I would like to pay to have (a certain faith healer) come and pray over your son. I’m confident that would heal him. In the meantime, here is a stack of that preacher’s materials to look over.”

At what point does a parent violate their own beliefs and convictions in order to be willing to do anything that would bless their needy child? When I was dealing with my own bout with cancer (2004/2005), and people would say they were praying for me, “Even though we’re not of the same religion.” I would half-seriously reply that “I’m accepting all prayers.” That’s one thing. But welcoming into your home a so-called “faith healer” is another altogether.

12. “If your son would just stop raging in his heart against God, then God would be free to heal him.”

Holly replies (at least in her heart), “Now, how do you know what a guy in a coma is thinking?”

This one makes me angry. I think at this point I would have shown the visitor the door and ordered them off my property. Enough is enough. And, as Jerry Lewis used to say, “And too much is plenty!”

13. “I know your brother is going to wake up! People wake up from comas all the time. I saw it on television last week!”

Holly wishes she had a nickel for every time someone has thrown that one their way. She thinks, “Wouldn’t it be nice if real life always resolved itself at the end of a 30-minute time slot, just like on television.”

14. “We want to be your family . We want to be there for you, every week. Twice a week if you need it.”

The people who said that never returned or even inquired as to how Seth and the family were doing.

15. “You know, it’s been 7 years. You really need to get over this and move on.”

That’s pretty hard to do when your loved one is lying in the next room, requiring 24/7 personal care.

16. “I want to come visit your son, but I just can’t. You see, I don’t do well in hospitals.” Or, this variation: “I just can’t handle seeing him like this. I want to remember him the way he was.”

What goes through your mind on hearing this is: “Maybe you need to get over yourself, friend. Think of what it must be like to be in his condition. Think how much it might mean to him to hear the voice of a friend.”

17. “I know how you feel.” “I know what you’re going through.”

Answer: No, you don’t. The only person who knows is one who has been there themselves.

18. “We’re on our way home from a workshop on faith healing, and we’d like to stop by and pray over your brother!”

This couple left with a rather disappointed air when the new techniques they had learned failed to work.

19. “The other night we stopped by the hospital after everyone was gone. I prayed healing over your brother, called him forth, and said, ‘Young man, arise!'”

They seemed to feel a certain satisfaction over having done this. One wonders why, since Seth continued to lie there.

20. “I want to come and pray for your son.” “I want to come and minister to you.”

They stayed an additional three hours during which time they talked about themselves, their kids’ activities, politics, and last Friday night’s football game.

Holly observes, “People like this genuinely believe they mean it when they say they want to come pray for you and/or minister to you. But what they really mean is they want to sit and have someone listen to them talk all afternoon.”

Such people leave thinking–as a family member actually heard a woman say in church one day–“Wow, I really ministered to them today! It must have been such a bright spot in their sad situation, to hear my cheerful, fascinating conversation.”

On another occasion, a woman who was known for staying all day became insulted and then rude when the family declined her offer to visit the hospital in a time of crisis.

Holly notes, “Here is a hint for anyone who is considering visiting a sick friend or one in a crisis: Unless you are specifically asked otherwise, limit your visit to a half hour at the most. They have enough to deal with without having to pretend all afternoon to be interested in what your kids are doing.”

Holly says a half-hour. I’d say more like 10 or 15 minutes max. I’m recalling walking into a hospital room where a man from the church sat visiting the patient, also a member of our church. When he got up to leave, I said, “Hey, don’t let me rush you off.” He protested that I wasn’t, that it was time to leave. After the door closed behind him, the patient said, “Preacher, I’m so glad you came. He’s been here a solid hour.” On another occasion, a patient told me, “Pastor, don’t tell the church I’m in here. They’ll visit me to death. I’d like some quiet.”

21. “I am sending you a hankie that has been prayed over by a (certain South American faith healer), who has been known to raise the dead!”

Another said, “I saw your story on the web site and I am sending you a special 1-inch square of fabric to put under his pillow, which will heal him. I’ll get back in touch with you in a couple of weeks to hear about all the improvements.”

The gullibility of some people knows no bounds.


“I’m so sorry.” When in doubt, that’s the best thing to say.

“Can I pray with you?” Prayer is always welcome.

“Here are some meals to put in your freezer and use when you need them.”

Holly suggests, “Rather than asking ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do to help’–which will likely be turned down, as no one ever wants to trouble another person–why not say: ‘I am going to _______ for you.’ Perhaps it’s to bring a meal, give you a gas card for all those trips to the hospital, or harvest your garden.” She adds, “I’ve been guilty of it myself. It’s a way to sound like you care withoiut really having to do anything, because you know they probably won’t take you up on it.”

I suspect we’re all guilty of this “If there is anything I can do” routine. Holly’s parents–and so many in their situation–will almost never call someone and say, “Okay, you said to call you if you could do anything, so we need you.”

One young man who knew that Pastor Esvelt’s church service ended later and was farther away than his, took it upon himself every Sunday to drive to the care center and sit with Seth until the family arrived. He held Seth’s hand, prayed aloud for him, and talked with him. Holly says, “We will never forget that kindness.”

“I would like to offer to stay with your son for an afternoon so you can get out for a few hours.”

Holly notes that Seth’s longtime best friend comes by every time he’s in town. He helps with projects around the house. Another friend, a firefighter, regularly stops to chat with Seth and exchange theological ideas with Pastor Esvelt. “Both are others-centered,” Holly notes, “and are true ministers to us.”

She adds, “It was amazing how God prompted so many of His people to meet specific needs at just the right time, over and over again.”

A final observation or two.

Let me say again that I had to ask Holly and her mother Mary to write these down for me so I could share them on this blog. They are not negative people who go around keeping account of wrongs. Quite the opposite, in fact. When you meet this family for the first time, you are blown away by the victory in Christ that radiates from them. You like them and want to know them better. They are incredible witnesses for the Lord and wonderful examples of what His Spirit can do in the hearts and lives of believers enduring difficult times.

So, why did I ask for this list? Because you and I are like their friends. We are the ones going into hospital rooms, nursing homes, rehab centers, and funeral homes. We greet families whose hearts are breaking and whose lives are reeling from the blow they have just taken. And we hope to have a word of comfort for them.

A word of comfort. That’s our goal. To say something or do something that will lift their spirits and bless their hearts and ease their pain.

Sometimes we learn more from seeing the wrong way someone did a thing than by all the instruction in the world on how to do it right. That’s the reason for this article today.

We welcome your comments at the end. And since we seem to be making a collection of “how not to comfort,” if someone used a memorable line on you during a trying time, tell us what it was.

We’ll try not to say it to someone else.

Let’s conclude with the single best thing to say in almost all situations–a house fire, a job loss, the death of a friend, whatever. No one has ever improved on this line:

“I’m so sorry.”

Administered with a hug.

Repeat that line if you wish. You can even add, “My heart is so sad for you.” But then stop. You said enough. Quit talking, even though the urge is welling up inside you. Squelch it. You have gotten it perfect.

Now be quiet.

15 thoughts on “21 Things Not to Say to a Hurting Friend

  1. Such a good perspective on the topic. It breaks your heart what people around us have to endure and rather do something lame to cover up how useless we feel we can take a practical and loving approach.

  2. I’ve heard most of those myself. Unfortunately in my younger years I said a few for which I regret.

    Just be there – there are so many unanswered questionds in life – “now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face . . .”

    Think about that “face to face” – oh glorious day

  3. When my wife and I lost a baby through a miscarriage, I was so amazed at how graciously our church ministered to us. I was waiting for a “thank God you have your other two girls” or “thank God He took your baby before it had to face the sin of this world.” We received none of those. Each person who spoke to us expressed their sorrow over the loss of our child, not just a miscarriage. I was truly thankful for their gracious words and attitude.

  4. Thank you, Brother Joe! I’m Seth’s youngest sister. Holly forwarded this on to me and I love that you took time to write this. I’ve heard all those in the last 7 years and I’m not always as gracious as my family, but I do try. My favorite was someone telling me, “Your brother is sinful and that’s why God did this.” I wanted to ask when the last time she had sinned was, and was pretty sure it was when she had uttered those words – the sin of sheer stupidity.

    Sorry I didn’t get to meet you when I was in town. We looked for you after service and didn’t see you.

    Thanks again; I got a great laugh over this believe it or not!

  5. WOW! I stumbled upon your site (then again maybe I didn’t, maybe God sent me here) while looking for something I might say to encourage some people in my church. But I find my friends and family are not the only ones who say stuff withou realizing how it really sounds. My wife has been sick for 15 years and I have heard so many of those same things said about our situation. She is now on dialysis. If only I could figure out what she/I have done wrong so we could fix it! We must be really slow learners if God really is trying to teach us something. God is good, even in bad times! 🙂

  6. Once again Joe you’ve shared important truths that we need to be reminded. It’s so easy for Christians to spout off “Christianese” without thinking.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Joe, this might be the best thing of yours I’ve read. I’m always reminded of Job’s three friends. When they first arrived on the scene to find Job sitting in ashes on the ground, Scripture says “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Perfect! Too bad they weren’t consistent. Their comfort turned to further grief when they opened their mouths, essentially accusing Job of bringing his trouble on himself. I know we all feel awkward when around hurting people, but silent presence is one of the best gifts we can give. I will keep this article for my ministry students at the seminary.

  8. Brother Joe, I’ve thought of one more “quote” to add to your list…

    I remember one older lady, referring to the fact that I met my husband while Seth was in the ICU, give a sigh and say, “Well, I guess God had to have Seth get in an accident for Holly to find a husband.” Still laughing over that one!

  9. “you are blown away by the victory in Christ that radiates from them”

    That’s one of the many reasons I married Holly.

  10. It continually amazes me how stupid people can be. Sometime we are better off not to say anything. Job’s friends sat for 7 days and 7 nights without saying a word, but then they began to try to explain to Job why these things had happened. Lord, help us to not try to explain, and just love and listen to people.

  11. My husband (deceased 2009) and I lost our 17 y/o son in an accident in 2002 also involving 2 other young men following a year of harassment by these teens. Scott was preparing to enter the military with the goal of being a chaplain. He had been preaching for 2 years. I would agree that the worst oft repeated “condolence” was “I know how you feel.” Impossible unless they too have lost a child. Another was “It was for the greater good.” Likely true but not exactly a comfort. “Look at how many people have been touched by his death.” Ones I almost could not smile through was “What did you guys do for God to punish you?” “Your husband must not be doing what God wants or He would not have allowed this to happen.” and on and on and on!

  12. Thank-you for sanity. Another article might be “How NOT to witness to the un-saved”

    A Japanese Christian friend told me the following story which happened at her mother’s funeral. (she was not a Christian yet).

    A “well-meaning(?)” Christian informed her that since her mother was a Buddhist at death, she was now burning in hell!

    I went into a rage wondering how in the world she overcame such garbage to see Jesus at all?

  13. when my son died, at the visitation, i do not remember anything people said as they walked through the line by us….i only remember the ones who gave a silent hug, then moved on. one friend from church, at the funeral and other times kept saying ”it’s God’s will”….i just wanted to slap those words out of her mouth. i thought his death was a young man’s testosterone, the fearlessness of youth, and taking a curve too fast on his motorcycle. and as i stood at the coffin gazing at my boy, one of his coworkers said ”you know, that earring is against regulations” [he was a deputy, buried in his uniform with his one ‘bling’ earring in his ear [my request]],…i turned around and snapped at her ..”well, it’s okay because he won’t be going back to work anytime soon!”. the poor woman, because experiencing this loss and the ensuing formalities taught me that everything i ‘ve ever said at a funeral…..were so wrong. people want to say something but without having suffered a loss themselves, they want so much to comfort us, then say something so …inadequate.

  14. I first read the article on the Today’s Christian site and was thrilled that some one finally said what I’ve been thinking.

    I have two more to add: 1. Don’t ask if the deceased family member was a believer IF YOU DON’T KNOW!!! It only adds to a person’s sorrow to be reminded their loved one wasn’t and now is gone unable to change their mind about such a decision.

    2. Don’t tell a person who just put a loved on in a nursing home that “GOOD” Sister Ann took care of her mom for many loving years in her home. You aren’t Sister Ann nor is your loved one her mom. Most of us try to do what is right and best in a situation. And what is right and best for me, might not have been for Sister Ann.

  15. I didn’t get beyond #1. After suffering a massive stroke, a tragic fall, and being flatlined for three days, my mother died on her 87th Birthday and before we got her cleaned up and her things packed up in the hospital room someone said, “I think you should have prayed harder.” I didn’t grab him by the neck but I wanted to. I simply said, “Sir, every prayer I prayed was answered.” Sometimes praying to continue an earthly life is not the correct prayer.

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