What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving

grieving bishop

Hello City that Breeds Family,

It’s your friendly, neighborhood, self-appointed Bishop here.  Today I come to you with a heavy heart.  Last week my amazing, beautiful, enchanting  wife had a miscarriage.  Time has been disappeared in sorrow and pain.  We have drowned in tears.  The monster of grief follows both of us around, threatening to pounce and overtake us without warning, crippling us with despair.

Grief is strange bitch that way.  It’s like the tide.  It crashes in and knocks you down.  Then it rolls out and everything is peaceful again, but only for a moment or two as grief rebuilds its momentum, preparing to hit you again.

I first discovered grief’s relentless, deceptive pounding when my father died.  He passed away over fifteen years ago.  It was sudden and shocking.  He was fifty.  One moment we were eating dinner together as a family.  We were laughing and joking and sharing stories from the day.  Then he was dying on the floor of his bed room.  Grief’s repetitive pounding beat on me for two years.  I would like to say that after two years things went back to normal, but the truth is things never went “back.”

Things never go back.  Rather, new normals are established.

When we see someone grieving we have a deep need to alleviate their struggle.  We want to make lift their spirits, to help them heal.  We seek to bandage their heart’s wound with reassuring words.  Like SRB’s Grand Prix, while well intentioned, these attempts to heal with catch phrases do more harm than good.

Today I would like to offer you some free advice.  From someone who is familiar with the ugly bastard who is grief,  here are three things you should never, never, never say…

1) Well at least…

If you find yourself starting a sentence to a grieving person with the words “Well at least”, just stop.  Don’t finish it.  Close your mouth and step away.

When someone is grieving, they don’t want to look on the bright side.  They don’t want to be told about the silver lining or how things could’ve been worse.  There is nothing good that can come out of your mouth after “well at least…” that will make the grieving person smile and say, “You know what?  You’re right!  I hadn’t thought of that.  I’m a total jerk for being so sad.  I’m going to turn this frown upside down!”

Now if the person grieving says, “Well at least…”, that is acceptable.  In response, you are to nod and say, “That’s true.”  Doesn’t matter if its true.  Just nod and say, “Yeah.”  The person grieving is the only one allowed to use this phrase.

2) God has a plan.

After my father died, people said this to all the time.  My father was a world famous, OB/GYN surgeon.  He innovated surgical techniques that saved lives.  He wrote countless articles and studies.  He was a champion for people with Downs Syndrome (even testified before congress a few times).  He was a whistle blower who risked his life to end corruption.  He battled to improve health care for the impoverished of America; and in his “spare time” he help to build an indigenous medical school system for third world countries.  He died in his prime.  I always wondered when people said to me, “God has a plan”, what they were trying to tell me about God?

Were they hoping paint for me a picture of a God who, as a confusing asshole, makes nonsensical plans for his own entertainment regardless of the pain those plans cause my family and the rest of the world?  Were they hoping to show me how God has the power to do what ever he wants, regardless of its outcomes?  “God has a plan…so you should suck it up and stop your cryin’ you big baby.”  I doubt that was their intention…but that is how it felt.

I know what they were hoping to do was provide order to the chaos of loss by suggesting there was some higher thing at work.  But with these four words they accidentally said terrible, terrible things about God.  They made him responsible for tragedy and sorrow.  They turned God into a demented Easter Bunny who inexplicably hid bear traps in your back yard, knowing you will stumble into them, but not caring.

Regardless of your faith, your theology, or your world view…   Rather you be Reformed, Open Theist, Hindu, or Islamic…  It does not matter what you believe.  Never say to someone who is grieving, “God has a plan.”  Never.  Never, ever, ever say this.  Seriously.  Never.  If you want to have a theological discussion about the role of God in suffering and pain, fine; but wait until grief has stopped beating the shit out of the person.   When people say this to me I have to fight the urge to punch them in the throat and reply, “You’re right.  He does.”

3) All things work together for good.

This phrase is a horrible mutation of the first and second phrase.  Christians like to toss it out in times of suffering.  It is a misunderstanding of a verse in the book of Romans (part of the Bible).  When Christians use it they most often mean: “Hey Dude!  Don’t be so sad!  I know your mom was just hit by a tractor trailer, but God has a plan.  There is a reason for this terrible crap.  You’ll see. Life will be better in the long run because of this!  We’ll laugh about this tomorrow.”  

The statement used out of context by someone who is grieving  is a cheaters way out of escaping pain because it banks on an unknown future in which assumes the world will be worse if the tragic event had not occurred.

The root problem of all three of these phrases is that they make the person speaking them feel relief without hey helping the person grieving.  They ease tension for the one watching grief.  Although innocently meant, they are selfish.

When you encounter someone being beat to hell by waves of grief, here is my advice…

1) Join the mourner in his/her grieving.  In some forms of Judaism this is called “Sitting Shivah.”  Traditionally for seven days after a death friends of the grieving wear black, don’t shave, don’t bath, don’t wear jewelry, etc…  When you encounter a friend who is grieving, do your best to empathize and join them in their sorrow.

2)  Bring food.  When you visit a grieving friend, bring a meal…preferably something comforting the griever will enjoy.  Food has amazing healing powers. It helps.  But don’t assume you will be sharing the meal with your friend.  If you are invited to stay, fine.  But don’t assume.  Bring the food prepared to leave it.  And don’t ask about it later.  They may never eat it…and that’s okay.

3) Acknowledged that death sucks ass and then shut up.   Here are three things that are appropriate to say to people that are grieving:  This sucks. It’s is shitty.  I’m sorry.  Once  you’ve said one or all of those things, shut up and be present.  Don’t go away.  Be there.  Be loving.  Be compassionate.  Look for opportunities to serve.  But shut up.  Even if this means sitting in silence while the mourner cries.  It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable the silence makes you, because it’s not about you.

After a week the waves of grief are slowing down in my house.  A new normal is starting to be established.  It’s slow, but it’s happening.

The only medication for grief is time and love.

Sincerely with sadness,

The Bishop of the CTB

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