I once asked Matt Chandler about the unhelpful things people said to him in his fight against cancer. He refused to give examples but explained, "I think people can get a little weirded out by pain, suffering, and death. They don't know what to do so they end up saying things that are hurtful to people who have experienced loss."
For those of us self-aware of the propensity for foot-in-mouth disease, we sometimes choose simply to ignore those who are hurting so that we don't make things worse.
Jill Sullivan, who lost a 16-year-old daughter to a highly aggressive form of brain cancer, explains why it can be so hard to return to church after the death of a loved one. She writes:
Our churches are full of people who are hurting, many of whom have lost children or other loved ones. For me personally, returning to church was one of the most difficult things to do after my loss, and I've talked to many other bereaved parents who have expressed the same thing.
She offers some reasons why this might be the case:
- Families tend to sit together at church, and when your family is missing someone, their absence is particularly acute in the pew. Looking around and seeing other intact families worshiping beside you can also be very painful.
- The songs we sing in church can bring up very strong emotions. Songs about heaven can conjure up an almost unbearable longing in our hearts, and songs of praise can be difficult to sing when your heart is broken.
- There is an unspoken expectation at church that everyone is filled with the "joy of the Lord." You know what I mean . . . we put on our best clothes and our Sunday School smiles and give the appearance that all is right in our world. A grieving parent may simply not have the emotional stamina to play that role.
She then asks, "So how do we as the body of Christ reach out to bereaved parents and give comfort without adding to their pain?"
Here are her suggestions for both those who are grieved and for those who can comfort:
- Be patient with them. Grief is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's important to respect the fact that people need time to heal. The grieving parent may not be ready to resume regular church activities right away, whether that's teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, working in the nursery, or greeting at the door.
- Grief comes in waves. Don't assume that a person is "over it" if you see them smiling or laughing, and don't assume that a person is "not doing well" if you see them grieving outwardly.
- They may not be interested in small talk. Someone who has lost a child is grappling with deep spiritual issues and may not be interested in shallow conversation. Listen to them if they want to talk, and don't feel that you need to answer all their questions. Remember how well it went over once Job's friends started talking!
- Grieving people are vulnerable and often hyper-sensitive, and they may have been hurt by things that well-meaning people have said to them. Some of those things might include:
"I know what you're going through. My grandmother died last year."
Something along the lines of "God always picks His best flowers first" or "God must have needed another angel in heaven."
"She's in a better place." (There's nothing really wrong with that because it's true...it's just that the grieving person really wants their loved one here with them!)
"It's a good thing you have another child."
- They also may have been hurt by those who have intentionally avoided them or who have said nothing to them at all. So what should we say to a grieving mom or dad?
"I love you, and I'm praying for you."
She writes, "That's it? Could it be that simple? Yes, it really is. This statement, maybe accompanied by a warm hug, is all that's needed to assure a bereaved parent of your care and concern."
You can read her whole post here.
For those who are grieving, this workshop from Nancy Guthrie (at the TGC Women's Conference) may prove instructive and edifying.
See also this interview with her about making the church safe for grieving people.
Nancy tells her own story of profound suffering---the death of two of her children in infancy from Zellweger syndrome---in the book Holding On to Hope: A Pathway through Suffering to the Heart of God. Since that time she has gone on to write additional books exploring God's comfort in suffering---for example, When Your Family's Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow. She has also edited two relevant collections of classic and contemporary essays: Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God's Purpose and Provision in Suffering and O Love That Will Not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence in God.