Mailbag

The Mailbag: Ministering to the Bereaved

 

How can I properly console a friend who has experienced the loss of a loved one? My friend’s baby recently passed away. I really want to know how to console her. What are some helpful things I can say to her and do for her (and hurtful things I can avoid saying to her) during this time?

I’m so glad you want to reach out to your friend with the love of Christ and minister to her during this difficult time. The Bible is very clear that because God is a God of love and comfort, we are to offer love and comfort to those who are grieving:

…weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15b

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Comforting and grieving with those who grieve is a ministry for which God has (generally) gifted, shaped, and equipped women in a way that’s unique and discrete from the ways He has (generally) gifted, shaped, and equipped men. Certainly pastors (and others) can, do, and should minister much needed compassion toward those under their care, and most Christians can attest to how helpful good pastoral care has been during a time of grief. But there’s something special in the way a godly woman can minister to the heart of a hurting woman and her family that should be nurtured and encouraged in the body of Christ.

Your question is a very wise one. As Believers, we have the desire to minister to those who are hurting, but we’ve all heard stories about well-meaning people who have said some really insensitive things that have caused further pain to the bereaved.

So what I’d like to do today is to offer a few thoughts on ministering to those who have lost someone dear and then open things up to all of my readers – especially those who have lost a child or another very close loved one – to offer some input.

Pray– Pray fervently for your heartbroken friend, asking God to comfort and heal her heart, provide for any material needs, and any other specifics you know of. Also, ask God to give you wisdom to know the right things to say (and not say) and do.

Remember: Your words can’t fix things.– It’s hard to watch someone suffer. As godly, tender-hearted , nurturing women, there’s often nothing we want more than to take all that pain away and make the sufferer happy again. Sometimes we ladies have it in the back of our minds that if we can just find the exact right combination of words to say in the exact right comforting tone, we can take away the pain of the person we’re comforting. We can’t. It’s something I have to remind myself of again and again. But it’s especially important to remember this when we’re comforting someone, because the more we talk, searching for those “magic words,” the greater risk we run of sticking our foot in our mouths and saying something hurtful instead of helpful. Additionally, when a grieving person’s emotions are raw, it can be extremely grating to listen to someone talk on and on and on. We would do well to take a lesson from Job’s friends…

[Job’s three friends] made an appointment together to come to show [Job] sympathy and comfort him…And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And 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. Job 2:11b,12b,13

…Remember, it was only after these guys opened their mouths that the trouble began, because…

Make sure whatever you choose to say is doctrinally sound.– This is where Job’s friends got into trouble. They tried to “minister” to Job with unbiblical theology.

Heaven did not “gain another angel” with the death of your friend’s loved one. People, even Christians, do not turn into angels when they die. The deceased has not “gone to a better place” or “gone to be with Jesus,” nor will he “rest in peace,” nor is it true that “at least he’s not suffering any more,” if he was unsaved. Don’t say something like this unless you’re relatively certain the person was saved as evidenced by the fruit of his life. If you’re thinking about saying something theological-ish to your friend and you’re not sure whether or not it’s biblically accurate, either take the time to find out first, or err on the side of caution and don’t say it.

Say: “I’m praying for you.”– I’ve heard many grieving families say this is one of the most comforting things they can hear, especially if they know you to be someone who is faithful in prayer. Do not say you will be praying for your friend if you don’t really mean it. If you’re afraid you’ll forget to pray for her, set a reminder on your phone, stick a note on your bathroom mirror, tie a string around your finger – whatever you have to do to remember. From time to time, remember to let your friend know you’re still praying for her.

Say: “Can I pray with/for you?”– There might be a moment at the wake or during a visit when it’s appropriate to offer to pray with your friend, or pray for her out loud, just between the two of you. Ask God for wisdom to know if it’s the right time, if this would be encouraging to your friend (ex: if your friend is unsaved and/or enraged at God over her loved one’s death, this might not be helpful at the moment), and what would be the appropriate words to pray. Ask God to comfort your friend, provide for her needs, help her to know that He is there for her, and to strengthen her trust in Him.

Say: “I love you,”– Just a simple “I love you,” lets your friend know you care and are grieving with her. If appropriate, you might wish to also share a special memory of the deceased or recount how much he meant to you.

Share a Scripture: Was there a particular verse or passage focusing on God’s goodness or comfort that brought you peace and strength when a loved one died? Make sure you’re rightly handling it (i.e. it applies to someone who has lost a loved one, doesn’t appear to promise your friend something that was only promised to Israel, a particular Bible character, etc.), and recite it or jot it down (maybe in a nice sympathy card) for your friend.

Follow up- There are some people in this world who are what I call “calendar gifted.” They remember every birthday, every anniversary, every significant date, and they send a card or note, or commemorate the day in a way that makes the recipient feel like the most special person in the world. I do not have that gift. I am in awe of people who do have that gift. If that’s one of your giftings, put it to work in ministry by reaching out to your friend on her loved one’s birthday, the anniversary of his death, their wedding anniversary, etc. What a blessing you will be to your friend.

Hugs and tears– Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing at all, just “weep with those who weep”.

Don’t say something you wouldn’t want to hear if you had just lost a loved one.Matthew 7:12 reminds us to treat others the way we would want to be treated. This is a very helpful filter when it comes to what to say or not to say to your grieving friend. Think about your own children. If one of them died, would you want to hear, “Well, at least you have your other children,” or “You’re still young- you can have more children.”? Probably not. (Also, in a way, this falls under the “don’t say unbiblical things” category. While these statements may be factually true, Christians recognize that every individual is uniquely created in the image of God. Other children can never replace the one who was lost.)

Don’t try to give a theological treatise on why the person died.– “God wanted your loved one to be with Him,” “He had finished the work God gave him to do,” “God decided it was his time to go,” “God wanted to spare him further suffering,” etc.

The bereaved person almost certainly doesn’t want to hear it, you don’t have the chapter and verse goods to back up any kind of statement like this, and it smacks of trying to “let God off the hook” for allowing the person to die. Your friend is probably already wondering why God ended the person’s life at this time. You don’t have the answer, and it’s prideful to think that you do. Nobody needs you to wax theologically eloquent on why the person died. So don’t.

Just do it./DON’T just do it.– “Don’t tell the person, ‘If there’s any way I can help, let me know.’ Grieving people are overwhelmed. They can’t think of what they need at the moment, and later, they may feel uncomfortable asking for your help. Just find something helpful to do and do it.” I’ve read this advice about how to help the bereaved more than once. Don’t ask, just go over and clean her house, or go buy her groceries, or take her a meal, or whatever.

If you’re extraordinarily close to the bereaved person and know all of the ins and outs of her household, this might be helpful. But if you’re simply a friend from church, a next door neighbor, etc., I would not recommend “just doing something” without checking with your friend first to find out if what you think would be helpful would actually be helpful. You don’t want to just show up with a meal on the night three other ladies have just shown up with a meal and a fourth has already taken your friend out to dinner. You don’t want to just show up with perishable groceries when other people have already packed her fridge. You don’t want to just show up to clean her house when somebody already cleaned it yesterday. Instead, think of two or three things to suggest to your friend and ask if that would help her. “Could I bring dinner for your family one night this week?” “I know you have a house full of people and you probably haven’t had time to do laundry. How about I take it to my house and take care of that for you?” “Could I drop your kids off at school tomorrow morning?” “Is there something else I could do that would be more helpful than what I just suggested?”

Offer to be an intermediary.– I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as helpful as someone who steps up to “handle” things between the family of the deceased and others who want to help. An intermediary can be the “bad guy” who explains to surprise visitors that the bereaved person is resting and isn’t up to a visit right now. She can organize a meal or grocery schedule, fill people in on funeral arrangements, field “What can I do to help?” questions, and assign tasks the bereaved person needs done. If you’re someone who’s good at understanding and carrying out someone else’s wishes or instructions, offer to step into this gap for your friend. (And be sure to reassure her that your feelings won’t be hurt if she doesn’t want/need this or if she’d rather someone else do it.)

OK readers, it’s your turn. What are some things you’ve found helpful or encouraging (or unhelpful/hurtful) that people have said or done when you have lost a loved one, especially if you’ve lost a child?


Additional Resources:

On Funerals, Grieving, and Suffering (links to resources on suffering and ministering to the bereaved)


If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

15 thoughts on “The Mailbag: Ministering to the Bereaved”

  1. Perfect timing
    My good friend is with her mother who is in hospice right now, and the mother’s passing is imminent. Last year this friend lost her husband to cancer, and her mom was a source of strength for her through that difficult heartbreak and shock This friend is not a church goer, lives a Christian life, but is not truly saved. Her name is Beth. Y’all, please pray for her as I reach out to her. I have never gone through her depth of loss.

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  2. Thanks Michelle for this. I did want to add one thing if I might. I think it’s helpful not to share a story about your own grief or somebody in your family that died or is sick or was in an accident, etc. This can feel like a further burden on the person who’s already sad. The grieving person is faced now with your pain too. It’s like it takes the focus off of them and puts it on you and all of a sudden they feel like they should be comforting you. I know that people want to say these things because it makes them seem like they understand and there’s a connection of some kind, but in the long run I think it’s better not to burden them with it.

    Later on, as they begin to pick up the pieces it might be helpful to share with them the things you did that helped you in a similar situation. But early on it just isnt helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A comment from one of my Twitter followers:

    After my son’s accident I was encouraged by the kind thoughts others shared about him. But even more from older friends who grieved with us as they told us of their own child’s death. I didn’t need the head scratching advice that it was ok to be mad at God.

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    1. From another Twitter follower:

      My daughter was murdered when she was less than two years old. Your advice is spot on. Be there, grieve with them, keep them busy, show them love. Be ready to explain God’s Sovereignty with scripture when they are ready to hear it. It is what brought me peace and understanding.

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  4. When a special friend of mine died, someone decided to comfort me by recounting the loss of her parents. Her bereavement was harsher than mine (her parents died together in a car accident), but my friend hadn’t even been dead 24 hours. At the time, I didn’t care about her loss. I needed people to care about MY loss!

    So I’d advise people to avoid sharing their own bereavement stories while the wound is still fresh. Use your own experience to minister in ways that helped you, yes. But do so without offering your back story. A grieving person doesn’t need to bear YOUR grief in addition to her own.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Grieving is a process and no two people are the same. There are stages but that’s individual as well.
    Depending on the person, I will be able to assess what their needs are and how i can help.
    Sometimes it’s an ear or a shoulder to cry on, while you gently minister bathing in prayer the request
    and relying on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide. I’ve been asked to be kind of a bouncer at a funeral home
    once so that there wouldn’t be a dispute. My friend said, ” I know you will handle it tactfully” and I did.
    I am blessed to have friends who trust me in tough situations, when they can’t even. Later on when she
    was able to talk to the person they were able to make amends.
    I seem to take the role of, Girl Friday. And I do try to find something humorous to help cut the tension.
    And now that my son is grown and called upon, Ive gone for long early morning walks.
    Getting out of the house and exercising is a wonderful stress reliever and a perfect time to sing praises.
    Just being a friend and showing you care goes a long way, especially a friend who covers their friend in prayer.

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  6. Very helpful article Michelle. I’d say stay away from platitudes. A grieving parent should never hear something like, “God needed a new flower for His garden” or “She’s an angel watching over you.” Out of a grief situation, it sounds dumb. In one, it’s not helpful or hopeful…and it’s dumb.

    If Mom is a Christian, there will be a time to share God’s promises with her. Scripture can be so comforting.

    It’s ok to cry or not cry. It’s ok to just sit in silence. It’s ok to say, “I love you, I’m so sorry.”

    Say the baby’s name and in the right time and context. One of Mom’s biggest fears may be that her little one will be forgotten.

    Remember that grief comes in waves. She may seem fine for a little while, but sometimes 3-6 mos out is when the weight of the pain settles on her. Be prepared for that.

    Feed her. Tidy up dishes. Take the garbage out. Let her talk and cry and cry and talk.

    Lastly, watch out for depression. Grief has a depression aspect to it, but if Mom isn’t moving through it, it may be time to see a doctor. Encourage her to walk with you at a nearby park or even just around the block. It can be very beneficial.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Five months ago my husband of 54 years left to be with the Lord. My bestest friend was a true “God send” – staying with me for 2 weeks, helping with the memorial service, & acting as an intermediate.
    Grief and stress made me feel I was brain damaged. I’d forget how to do the simplest tasks – like using a can opener! Despite having prepared with an attorney, I was shocked at the red tape that immediately hit me. I could not understand the reams of forms that required my attention. Without the assistance of my daughter and my friend, I could not have slogged through them.
    Their driving me was also invaluable. I did not feel competent to drive at that time.
    Some church acquaintances meant well – but caused more stress than help. I was not capable of answering open-ended questions. I needed multiple-choice options.
    And I did not appreciate their gushing & crying about how they will miss my husband.
    There were almost too many offers of help in the first weeks. After that I felt I had dropped of the face of the earth. Silence. No phone calls, no one checking on me. Do not offer to help someone and then disappear! And as mentioned in your article, I was not comfortable phoning a request for help. I now understand why some grieving people become recluses and alcoholics. It would have helped if someone accompanied and drove me to church. Sunday is the most painful day of the week – going to worship without him by my side.
    I was thankful for friends praying with me. My scrambled thoughts could only pray, “Lord, help!”
    My close friends sent short text messages to brighten my day: I am praying for you this morning – Hope the sun shines on your day – Good morning sweet lady. Invaluable mood lifters.
    I apologize if my comments are too many and too lengthy. Your article was excellent. I hope my writing of my recent experiences can help people understand what the grieved are experiencing.

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    1. Carol- Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us. I think your thoughts and suggestions will be very helpful not only to those seeking to minister to the bereaved, but also to those who will lose a loved one in the future. What you said about going to church alone really resonated with me. I’m sure that will be one of the hardest parts for me when my husband passes. I’m so sorry for your loss.

      Like

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