Over the course of a year, I have watched and experienced extreme loss. I have witnessed my friends and family members lose loved ones, relationships, jobs, and pets. As a society, I have watched people lose a sense of security, a sense of freedom, and so much more.
In a conversation with some friends, we began to share and vent about the losses in our lives. The thing that struck me the most is the anger that my friends felt toward people during their grieving process. Story after story arose about how people said things that were meant to bring comfort, yet they only brought pain and anger.
It caused me to question a few things about my responses to those who are in bereavement. What have I said that might have hurt instead of heal? As a believer, have my words not been comforting to those who I have helped? As a future counselor, what responsibility do I have in the grief process with my words of comfort?
Below are 4 things that we often say in efforts to comfort, yet may cause more harm.
1. I know how you feel
During times of loss, we feel like we are at a loss for words, and we are looking to make a meaningful connection with those who are grieving. In our attempt to connect and show empathy, we internalize their pain and compare it with our own loss that we have experienced. It is in this effort to connect where we find ourselves making the mistake of claiming to know how someone feels in the grieving process.
A friend of mine ended a three year relationship with her boyfriend. I had been in those shoes before and, in an effort to provide comfort, I made it seem like I knew exactly how she was feeling. In that moment, I realized that there was a difference between knowing and understanding. I didn’t know exactly what she felt or had been through in three years to lead her to this point in life. I could relate due to past experience, but I truly didn’t know the whole gamut of emotions, thoughts, and feelings she had.
Instead of focusing on knowing, we should focus our efforts on showing empathy and compassion through understanding. I could understand some of the emotions my friend had and, through that lens, I was able to listen and provide comfort without judgment. Sometimes that's all people are looking for.
2. You're still not over that?
Time can be our worst enemy, especially when used in inappropriate ways. When we place a time limit on the grieving process, more damage can be done to someone emotionally, physically, and even spiritually.
When time limit statements are made, we can stunt someone’s growth and healing process that may leave wounds that can take even longer to heal. Our job is to help usher those who are grieving through the process in their own time. Time can heal wounds, but the amount of time shouldn’t be a tool used to cause re-injury.
3. Be strong
"Strong" can be defined in many different ways and can be used as an adjective. Yet, it is when used as a verb in this process where the definition becomes more complicated. When people are told to be strong, they may feel pressure to not show any emotions at all.
Strength is more than just being stoic and emotionless. One can be strong and shed tears, be angry, and grieve in their own way. Our view of strength must shift from not showing and sharing emotions, to offering a space where people can feel free to grieve in their own way without the pressure of appearing strong.
4. Don’t cry, they are with Jesus
I Thessalonians 4:13 says that, as believers in Christ, we don’t mourn as the rest of the world because we have hope for those fellow believers who are resting with Jesus. These words bring comfort, yet they are often used as a deflection in the grief process.
As believers, we are quick to dismiss the process of grief and cover it up with hope. The scripture reveals that, although we have hope and we will see our love ones, our grief is still real. Tears will still flow, heartbreak will still hurt, and the pain still lingers.
As helpers and believers, we must share with others that they are not alone and continue to provide prayers, compassion and reassurance. As we walk with them through the process, the reminder that Jesus is with them is sometimes the best comfort that we can give.
As followers of Jesus, we must remember how our words can help or hurt someone in the grieving process. No matter if it is death of a loved one or an end to a relationship, we must make sure that as we provide comfort to others, we are operating from a place of compassion and discernment.
Comfort through more action and less words
Bio: Jennifer Ngaonye is a second year graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Program at Moody Theological Seminary. She is a wife and mother of two, and serves as an associate minister and Sunday school teacher. Jennifer loves to help others and works hard to make an impact in the lives of others.