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
“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)
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.