Mailbag

The Mailbag: Ministering to the Bereaved

Originally published August 26, 2019

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.

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

  1. My friend just lost her husband on Christmas day and she told me the thing she dreaded the most with seeing people was the ones who broke down in heavy tears trying to console her. She said she wasn’t in a place emotionally to try to comfort “them” but felt she had to somehow make them feel better. She’s a very private person and did most of her crying when she was by herself, so she really struggled with how to ease their pain.

    For me, when I’ve lost loved ones, I always appreciated the people who would say to me, “I really have no words and don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry.” I genuinely appreciated that we could have that kind of conversation where people could admit they felt awkward or ill-equipped to say the right thing to provide comfort. For me, those moments stuck out and actually DID provide comfort because i could also admit that it was somewhat surreal (and awkward) to be on the receiving end of such kindness and I, too, didn’t really know how to respond or have the right words. I felt like it released a bit of the pressure valve for all involved. I remember one friend looked at me and just shook their head because they could not formulate words to say anything, and I just opened my arms and said, “a hug says it all.” Those were some of the best hugs because they spoke volumes to me.

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  2. Kelly and I discussed this today. We remembered that people would ask us “what are you going to do now?”. Like making a decision about how to go on living was something we had figured out or that we were expected to make a major life change right after our life had been torn apart.

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  3. My SIL and I both lost our young adult children within six months of each other. We started a grief ministry for parents and it’s going well, as everyone so far seems to have faith in God and are believers. I anticipate eventually meeting those who will say their child wasn’t saved…. we are not prepared for that and really need guidance in ministering to non-believers.

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    1. Kat- I’m so sorry for your loss and your sister-in-law’s loss. How wonderful that you are now able to comfort others with the comfort with which God comforted you!

      I would suggest getting your pastor to train/coach you on ministering to the unsaved and those who have lost an unsaved child. Surely he has had to preach those kinds of funerals and minster to people in those situations. I’m sure he could be very helpful.

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  4. With the wife’s permission after her husband passed, another friend and I took brunch to a family for the morning of the funeral because there were many out of town guests staying with her and coming the morning of the funeral. We did a variety of things from egg casseroles 1 with/1 without meat, big fruit platter, muffins, assorted bagels, GF breads, juice — trying to make it so they could heat up whatever they wanted or reheat the next morning and she didn’t have to serve them. We included paper plates, napkins and plastic ware. We also offered to do the beds after her family left, but someone else beat us to it.

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