What do I say when someone dies?

Q. My friend’s wife just died, leaving him with three small children to raise. How can I offer comfort? What do you say to someone who’s experienced a real tragedy?

A. This is a great question – it’s one that affords us a chance to look at how we can best help those we love deal with grief.

What I’d like to do is start with the whole idea of what to say and what not to say. This is a question many people ask about and the good is that the question itself shows that we want to love people well and support them rightly.

Like many priests, I feel like a bit of an expert on grief. Most priests deal with death on a daily basis. We sit with families in the immediate aftermath. We walk with them through the visitation and funeral process. We also tend to see them following the funeral and the slow mending process. All of my comments here flow from that experience.

So, what should we not say to the family of the deceased?

I want to be clear: In all of the examples I will offer of what not to say, I have no doubt our intentions are good. No one goes to a funeral or a wake and wants to say “the wrong thing.” But we should remember that our good motives aren’t enough. When talking to the family of the deceased, our goal is not to process our own grief or sorrow, but to offer them our hearts, prayers and support. We can work through our own grief with others or with the family at a later day when their pain is a little less raw.

First of all – and this is important – we have to realize that there is nothing you can say that will make the situation better. This is a terrible reality, but an important one and, honestly, the root of a lot of the unintentionally bad things we say to others in their darkest hour. We have to abandon the idea that there is something to be said that will end their pain.

With that in mind, I dare say we should avoid theologizing at this point. I’m always amazed at how many people are comfortable telling others that this death is what God wanted. You may be reading this and thinking, “But it was God’s will.” I have two things to say to that: First, you have no idea if it was or not. God is not us. The issue of God’s will is an amazingly complex and philosophical one and best not left to be summarized in a four-word sentence. Also, and most importantly, ask yourself how this statement will help the person in grief?

Avoid speculating on the family’s future. I find this one takes two forms: statements of despair and statements about future prospects. By statements of despair, I mean “Oh what are you going to do?” or “How will you raise these kids?” Things like that. As a general rule, the person in grief doesn’t need us to help them remember how hard life is going to be. By statements about future prospects, I mean “Oh, you’re young” or “You’ll meet someone else.” These types of statements don’t help at all and may unintentionally bring more pain.

Don’t compare. Don’t say things like “I know how you feel,” especially if you haven’t experienced a loss exactly like theirs. If you are tempted to say, “I know how you feel,” it’s a pretty good sign that you don’t. Everyone’s pain is unique.

In the end, remember a great rule they gave us at seminary: If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all. There is a power to silence and a sincere affection expressed through a hug, a handshake or a knowing look. This may sound crazy, but if you don’t know what to say, tell them. There is a vulnerability in the statement “I don’t know what to say” that shows the family you get it.

So, what do you say?

1. Express your affection. Let the family know you love them and care about them. Speak from your heart. Tell the family you care.

2. It’s also good to say something about the deceased: “He was a good man.” “She was a woman of great faith.” “He lived his faith with such devotion.” “She lived with passion.” True statements about why the deceased person will be missed are a real source of blessing. They can remind the family how blessed they have been to have the person in their life.

3. In your words and actions, commit to them. Let the family know they will not walk alone in the future. Let them know you will be there – not just in the immediate future, but in the long term, as well.

As a solid, overall approach to this, remember your goal is to, like Jesus, offer yourself to the family, pouring yourself out in loving service.

As usual, in all things, pray with all your heart, soul and mind for the family to know God’s love and your support. Next time, I’ll talk us through how to help a family in grief after the funeral.