What to say/not to say when someone dies

Nathan’s father passed away a couple of months ago, after battling an awful disease for three or four years.  They had the blessing of knowing in advance what was coming; they had the awful burden of knowing in advance what was coming.  Recently, he and I were talking about what people say when your loved one dies. I asked for his experience on the subject. This is what he wrote….

Someone just this morning expressed her sympathy for the loss of my dad. It reminded me that I still had this partial thought process typed out.  If it turns out that any of this is useful fodder for one of your articles that would be great to read.  I always appreciate your point of view. (and I even agree with it occasionally) Actually I mostly agree.  (Joe: Buttering up the web-host is always a good idea, Nathan.)

My first thoughts on this topic were based on the biblical accuracy of things that are said after someone dies.  Do people really believe what they say?  If they do, where did they get those philosophies?  I’m not suggesting there is a list of approved biblical phrases to use in this situation, only asking that we consider why folks craft and continue to
perpetuate these flawed notions.  I believe there is a danger turning faith into fairy tale for our own comfort.  At the same time it may help us to approach someone with biblical truths after we understand their line of thinking.

I added some of my thoughts along with the things people say.

Bad or flawed things people say…

“God must really think you are strong because we know God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

“Your dad is in a better place.” (While I believe that my father is in a better place, this is along the lines of “He’s not suffering anymore.” It’s typically applied as if heaven is the default for anyone who wasn’t too bad.)

“Heaven has another angel.” (Whoa–God needed another angel?)

“He’s looking at you right now.”  (How could heaven be free of tears and pain if they were watching us?)

“He’s still with us, watching over us.”

Without much more than a “Sorry for your loss” a lengthy monologue on his/her own experience with loss.  As selfish as it sounds, I’m grieving now and I don’t want to hear your story.

“I know how you feel.”

“God has a reason for everything.”

“You are in my thoughts.”  (I never quite understood why this is supposed to comfort.) (Joe: I think, Nathan, it’s shorthand for “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.” So, I wouldn’t be too rough on someone who says this.)

Good or comforting things to say….

For the most part, I didn’t find words to be the most comforting offerings.  Actions such as hugs, meals delivered, prayer together or a listening ear were helpful to me.

“I love you.”

“I’ll give you a call in a few days.”

“Can I check on you later this week?”

“I can only imagine what he is experiencing right now.” (This one came from
a dear friend who absolutely knew of Dad’s relationship with Christ.  It
turned my focus from my loss to Dad’s gain.  It might not be the same for
everyone.)

“I’ll be praying for you and your family.”

“We are going to bring dinner by.  Is Wednesday OK?”  (Very few people that
I know will respond to the standard, “Is there anything I can do?”, but
almost no one can turn away a specific helpful gesture that has a time
stamp on it.)

“Take care of yourself.”  (It was comforting to know that someone was
concerned for me in all of this.  It would be easy to slip so deeply into
my grief that I neglect proper nutrition, sleep or even my mental health.)

After the funeral…

Some of the most meaningful words came weeks after the funeral.  Lots of
people are thinking about you in the first days.  Those who are truly
grieving with/for you will continue to show sympathy/empathy for some time.

Stories about Dad:  I already know how special he was to me.  It was
uplifting to hear about the significance of my father to others.  Those
stories carried significance. (End of Nathan’s article)

Joe comments:

This is a hard time for all of us–hardest of all for the family of course, but it’s difficult for friends who come by the funeral home or church and often stand in line.  Earlier this week, friends told me they stood in line over two hours at the church for the opportunity to speak to the grieving widower for 30 seconds and to give him a hug.  My hunch is the grieving family cares far more about the fact that friends showed up at all than the specifics of what they said.

Many people struggle with what to say to the grief-stricken.  For instance, in two days, I will be doing the funeral of the mother of a long-time friend who was almost 102 when she died.   Friends showing up may wonder what to say to the family.  Do they grieve in the same way as my friends early this week, where the wife was in her 70s and died somewhat unexpectedly?  My answer is simply, grief is grief.  A longer life just gives family and friends longer to love them.

In all cases, “I’m so sorry” accompanied with a hug is the gold standard.

9 thoughts on “What to say/not to say when someone dies

  1. “I know how you feel.” One of the worst lines ever! “I ache with you.” “I love you.” “I care.” The doing of acts of kindness goes a loooong way. Thoughtful remembrances later are nice. I went up to a lady on her anniversary once and her husband had died a few years earlier. I asked her how she was “on this day.” She was surprised I remembered and hugged my neck and said, “thank you.” It was a simple gesture, but very meaningful to her.

  2. Looking back over almost two years, I have that almost everyone who came to my husband’s funeral and/or offered condolences provided comfort. I was especially blessed that so many came to honor my husband, which also honored me. I loved all the emails and postings on Facebook that told me how Gary had influenced their lives in such positive ways. Yes, the friends who dropped by with succulent dishes to share with out-of-owners were much appreciated. The flower arrangements and contributions to ministries were confirmations to a life well-lived.
    A couple of things I found difficult even though they were meant to be comforting: “You know where he is–heaven is perfection.” However, I was left here, still here in my grief.” Another is sometimes a person would say, “I understand that grief usually lasts about a year (so was I supposed to forget about him in a year? That is hard to process when you have lost the dearest on earth to you.)
    I found it tremendously uplifting to have friends who allowed me to talk about my grief whenever I needed to, who never told me to “move on with your life” and who would call Gary’s name ( how good it was to hear his name spoken).

    • Bertha,
      I am reading Grief 101. Your insight has been somewhat of a consolation for me. My husband of 53 plus years died recently and I am overwhelmed with grief at the thought of a life without him. I am also left with the responsibilities that he shouldered during our years of marriage. I am asking for prayer….from everyone and I am asking that of you also though you don’t know me. Please ask God to help me financially, emotionally and spiritually. I feel so defeated.

  3. Yet, Don’t ignore the grandchildren of the deceased. Too often the children are they only people to whom sympathy is expressed. The grandchildren (especially if they are in college or older) may not know who you are. This is not the time to see if they remember you or treat them like a 4 year old. Also, the grandchildren are looking to see how the clergy respond to them. The young have likely never seen pastoral care and may not respond in the way that you expect. Some may be mourning more than everyone else, but they may be quiet about it. Don’t ignore them. They may be wondering who will be their defender and how they will cope with this loss.

  4. At 74, I have lost most of my family of origin. First was my brother whom I still grieve for, not just that he is gone but all the things we were never able to say to each other. Then my sister, we were close in age and that was a loss I was prepared for due to her long illness. One other sister remains, older than I and suffering from dementia. MY parents were ill and in nursing homes for some times before their death. No one can express anything comforting for they never knew them in life. I know they are in God’s care. I resent people trying to play that card: Those knowing my dad would be lying if they said they believe he is in Heaven. He was a cruel and immature person. I have dealt with his passing and need no help. My mother was a tragic figure who bore her trials with hope. What I am saying, I need nothing but “I am sorry for your loss.” I have my own close relationship with God, and I have precious memories mixed with painful ones. I do not need anyone’s brand of faith to give me assurance: God has done that. There was a friend who lost his son to leukemia. We were friends and fellow Sunday School members, kids in the same school. After the funeral, I went to him, held his hand in mine, our eyes met – and not one word could I say. Much later he said that was the most meaningful of all the condolences, for it was from the heart.

  5. Thank you for such a heartwarming gut wrenching truth about how we often mishandle the pain and grief of others to which we should only be adding our love

  6. Joe, as always thank you very much. I love your blog. As a millennial (although an old one!) from a secular part of the country, my experience has been that “you are in my thoughts” is usually from people who have decided they don’t play the game of saying they pray for people. I believe the culture, in small ways, is rejecting the idea that we must turn things like mourning and comforting others over to a supreme God. Very sad.

  7. The most offensive statements are “it was God’s will” and “God needed a flower for his bouquet”…both of which I have heard at funeral visitations. Another pet peeve of mine “doesn’t he/she look natural!” I want to say “NO, NO, a thousand times NO!!”

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