The recent church shooting in Texas sickens my heart. I can’t understand how anyone could do such a terrible, heartless, cowardly thing. It is an example of what happens when a reckless person has pure evil in their heart.
And now, in the aftermath, Americans are reacting and reflecting. Some of this reflection is good. We need to think now about how we can support the victim’s families, and, later, what we can learn from this tragedy.
But I’m afraid some of the reaction is not helpful at all. I don’t often scan Facebook, but today I did. And I was heartbroken at some of the things people were saying. They simply weren’t helpful; and they could make life harder for those who are grieving.
So I thought I’d cobble together a quick post on a few things not to say when you talk to a grieving person. And, I’ll do my best to explain why.
What you should not say:
- There’s a reason this happened.
(or any of the following: God needed more angels in heaven; God needed them there more than we needed them here; God works in mysterious ways; Everything happens for a reason; It must have been their time, etc.)
This is a crazy-making statement that genuinely well-intentioned people make. There was a sappy idea going around in Christianity for quite some time that if something happened on earth, God must have willed it to happen. But that’s simply not true.
Think about this… in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to ask for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” That means that earth is not where God’s will is done; heaven is. So, God didn’t will people to die in Texas last week. People died in Texas last week because of an evil person bent on destroying peoples’ lives.
As human beings, we’re “meaning-makers.” When we go through periods of grief we instinctively reach for some bigger purpose in the tragedy. And, the Bible tells us that God can take the jagged shards of tragedy and build a beautiful mosaic out of them (Rom. 8:28). But there is a time to recognize and grieve over the broken pieces. The time to talk about how they will be redeemed is later. If you’ve lived through deep tragedy, I’m certain you can identify with what I’m saying. There is a season of grief where it is not helpful to have someone try to diminish the deep sadness by explaining that something good will come of this.
In another blog post I’ve written about how making God responsible for tragedy keeps Christians from grieving in a healthy way. You can read that post here.
- That’s why I’ve been saying all this time that __________ should __________.
When something like this happens, we get angry. And when we get angry, we are motivated to distribute blame. Someone or something is at fault here. Somewhere the system is broken. And if we can pinpoint where that fault line is, we can recast our sadness as frustration. And frustration is an easier emotion to deal with.
There will be a time to examine what we can learn from tragedy. But that point is not now.
Years ago, I made a pastoral visit to an emergency room, because a middle-aged gentlemen had suffered a massive heart attack. I made it to the hospital moments after he was pronounced dead. I remember the man’s close friend railing against how the dead man had ignored his high cholesterol numbers for years. He told the man’s son to get his own cholesterol checked.
Perhaps the cholesterol was the culprit. But, for the family, this friend’s insensitive remarks added insult to injury. The day might come where a conversation about cholesterol would be meaningful. But it wasn’t that day.
- You must feel ____________.
It’s very easy to think that we’re empathizing with someone else when we guess the emotions they must be feeling. But for someone going through the “chaotic” stage of grief, it’s not helpful to give suggestions. They are swimming in a sea of different emotions, and trying to make sense of them all. It can actually be quite disconcerting if someone around them expects them to be feeling a certain way, and they don’t.
Early on in my coaching ministry, I talked with a gentlemen whose wife had recently passed away due to illness. He talked about how terrible he’d felt for days after the funeral. But on the fifth day, he felt a slight parting of the clouds. For the first time, he felt he might have a brief time where he could breathe again and think about other things for a few minutes.
He walked out and sat on his front porch, at which point his neighbor came over to console him. His neighbor said, “You must feel devastated!” The grieving husband agreed, and went back into his house, spending the rest of the day in the deep darkness he’d experienced up to that point.
- God will make it up to you. (After all, he did it for Job, didn’t he?)
- Don’t cry. They’re way better off now!
I’m not saying that God will not bring some sort of restoration to those who’ve lost much. And I would absolutely agree that when a person leaves this world and goes to heaven, they are much better off than they are on this planet.
But, be very careful with how you express these ideas. They have been used for at least a century to convince people not to grieve. The truth is that most of us are uncomfortable with grief emotions, and so we work hard to give good reasons to help people we love “snap out of it.” The apostle Paul in I Thess. 4:13 said that it’s okay to grieve, so long as we don’t grieve as if we have no hope.
That means that it’s absolutely okay for a person to go through intense, deep grief over the feelings of loss they experience when someone they love dies, even if they have tremendous faith.
So what can you say?
The truth is that there’s nothing you can say that will be as powerful as listening. It’s better, when you’re talking to a grieving person to hear what they have to say, and to help them feel understood. If they don’t have much to say, it actually may be most helpful to just be with them as they process things. They may not need you to make powerful statements… the power of your presence may be what they need most.
But if you need to say something, try to make sure it’s warm and compassionate. Because warmth and compassion bring healing to emotional pain. Perhaps you could say something like: I’m here for you if you need me, and I want you to know I deeply care about what you’re going through.
Remember, the two things you can do that will really make a difference are to be there and genuinely care.