What do I say to comfort a grieving friend?

Grief Share facilitators share advice on comforting someone experiencing a great loss

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A number of U.S. Mennonite Brethren churches use GriefShare curriculum as a resource to help people living with the pain of loss. In this article, GriefShare facilitators share advice for comforting those who are grieving. To learn more about GriefShare and how USMB churches use this resource, read this CL news story.

Comforting someone who is grieving can feel awkward and uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say. We stumble over our words. At times, we say things we later regret. It’s messy.

When comforting a grieving person, GriefShare facilitators agree it’s important to consider the impact of your words.

“(People) don’t want to go and be around somebody who’s grieving because they don’t know what to say,” says Matt Harder, pastor of care and counseling at Reedley (California) MB Church. “I think the biggest thing to say is ‘I care deeply, and I’m sorry.’”

Many times, the things that should be left unsaid are just as important, if not more so, than things that should be said.

What to leave unsaid

“(Do not) use trite phrases like, ‘I know what you’re feeling,’ or ‘I understand what you’re going through,’” says Tim Schellenberg, GriefShare facilitator and visitation pastor at Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas. “If they’re really hurting, they will say, ‘How can you understand what I’m going through? You’re not me. This is not your loss.’”

Facilitators say it’s important to remember that even if you’ve gone through a similar situation, you most likely do not know how that person is feeling.

“You do not know how the person feels, because even though a person can experience the same thing, everybody feels things different,” Harder says. “Even if you had the exact same thing happen, you’re going to process that different than somebody else.”

Velma Goertzen, GriefShare facilitator at Buhler (Kan.) MB Church, agrees, saying that comparing a grieving person’s situation to another’s minimizes his or her pain.

“People naturally will immediately relate to their own experience, but that’s when you have to take a step back and listen,” she says. “Because what you think they’re saying or feeling when you first start talking to someone that’s newly bereaved is probably not at all where they’re at. They may not even be past the shock of the death. It takes people six weeks to three months to realize it’s real, it really did happen.”

Pastor Duane Deckert, GriefShare facilitator at Bible Fellowship Church in Minot, N.D., says it’s important to refrain from saying things like, “God allowed this to happen” or “This will get better.”

“We all mean it well when we’re trying to help someone going through grief,” Deckert says. “But when you’re in the midst of grief, you don’t receive those statements very well because you hear them differently than what they’re spoken.”

Joel Vogt, GriefShare facilitator at Mountain View Community Church in Fresno, Calif., echoes the sentiment.

“You get clichés thrown at you—and by well intended people—but they have no clue what you’re feeling,” Vogt says. “Don’t give people instructions.”

Express how bad it feels

It’s also not helpful to try to turn a positive spin on the situation, Schellenberg says.

“I’ve heard some really awful things like, ‘Well, your child is in heaven’ and ‘God will give you another child’ or ‘Your husband died, but maybe you can get married again,’” he says. “To try to turn things to a positive is really not what you want to do, especially in the first six months or year.”

Instead, Schellenberg recommends encouraging people to express how bad it feels.

“You have to honor that position that they’re in, that loss, and to be there with them in that loss,” Schellenberg says. “One of the things I have found kind of hard, even for me, was to encourage them to express how bad they’re feeling. We find that so counter (to) what we like to do. We want to make things better.”

Schellenberg says a person does not even need a response, other than to say he or she is there to listen.

“The more deep you can get into the pain of grief, the more helpful that is,” he says. “Because what that communicates to that person who’s grieving is that this person really cares about me, is willing to listen to my pain.”

The importance of silence and listening

Goertzen, too, recommends listening as most important.

“The best advice is listen,” she says. “Just listen. Even if they’ve told their story 10 times, they need to tell their story over and over again to make it real, and they need somebody to listen that’s not going to judge or give them advice. They’re not really looking for advice. They’re looking for someone to be there, to cry on their shoulder, to support them, to love them.”

Learn to be okay with silence, Goertzen says, as it’s better to say nothing at all, than to say something you’ll later regret.

“When you talk to someone face to face, it’s the love and listening that’s most important, but you feel like you have to fill in the blanks,” Goertzen says. “It’s quiet. You feel like you have to say something, then we stumble over ourselves and we say hurtful things.”

At times, not even quoting Scripture is helpful, according to Schellenberg, Goertzen and Jenny Akina. Akina is GriefShare facilitator at North Fresno (Calif.) Church.

“If someone says, ‘All things work together for good,’ we know that in our hearts, but (we) don’t want to hear that right now,” Akina says. “Sometimes people just feel like they have to say something, but really, you don’t have to say anything.”

More important than saying anything is just being there for the person and listening.

“Being present is really important,” Akina says. “It’s the people that could come up to me and put a hand on my shoulder or just give me a hug, because really what can you say?’”

For Akina, whose husband died of cancer, hearing memories of her husband has been comforting.

“People think it’s better not to say anything about the deceased person, but it’s really nice to know that he’s not forgotten,” she says.

As time passes, Harder says it may be helpful to relate a personal experience of loss to express that while you might not know exactly where the person is at in their grief journey, you also understand pain.

“That aspect of it is helpful when somebody knows, oh you know what, they’ve been through some deep water too,” he says. “They kind of get where I’m at a little bit.”

Janae Rempel
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning journalist, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.

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