We’ve all been there. Someone — you, a friend, a co-worker — receives a life-changing phone call that starts with a voice crack and ends with a gaping hole where “normal” used to be. A classmate killed in a car accident. A sibling who overdosed. A grandparent who passed away from cancer or COVID-19.
Whatever the cause of the loss, the result is uniquely painful but universally true: We’re left to pick up the pieces amid waves of grief, while those around us struggle to know what to say — a struggle that dates back to biblical times. After Satan inflicts Job with “loathsome sores” and takes away nearly all his family and possessions, Job’s friends sit with him in silence and in mourning for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:7-13). But as Job’s suffering persists, their solace turns sour: Job’s companions spend the next 36 chapters of the book suggesting that Job’s suffering is a result of his own sin, a tirade brought to an abrupt halt when the Lord chastises them for their “folly” (42:8).
While it’s unlikely that we’ll receive the same cosmic call-out as Job’s companions, we can learn from their examples as we try to comfort those around us. With that in mind, here are a few things to avoid saying to your hurting friend (and what you could say instead).
1. God only gives the toughest battles to the strongest soldiers.
I still remember where I was when someone with the best of intentions tried to comfort me in an intensely painful moment. Although I knew she was trying to be encouraging, I wanted to scream that I did not ask to be strong, nor did I want to be.
If someone you love is hurting, don’t make grief a battle; make yourself a gentle place for them to rest. Validate the pain someone feels when they lose a person they can’t picture life without. Emphasize how senseless that loss seems and how tough it is to realize that they will never be able to pick up the phone and call their loved one again. Keep checking in as time goes by and remind them that you see them in their grief.
2. God has a plan.
I’m a Christian who believes that God is sovereign, faithful, and works all things “together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). However, when a loved one dies too soon, it feels like God’s plan stinks. (See also: “They’re with God now.” While a belief in heaven can soften the sting of death, it can’t fill the hole that a loved one’s death creates on Earth).
When your friend can’t trust God’s goodness for themself, let them know they don’t have to cling to faith alone and that you’ll be there until they do. I still remember the generous presence my friend offered me after I had experienced a searing loss. She met me in my mourning as I wept that I desperately wanted to trust that God was faithful, but I wasn’t in that place yet. She handed me a tissue, pulled me into a hug, and whispered that I didn’t have to see that yet, and that she would believe in that goodness for me until I could feel it for myself.
3. I can’t imagine how you’re getting through this — I’d never be able to keep going if that happened to me.
While people often say this to validate how gut-wrenching someone’s grief must feel, the impact of this statement can feel hollow. One of the most unfair parts of death is that the rest of the world keeps turning when it feels like your own has come to a sudden, screeching halt. Bills continue to arrive in the mail. Assignments and deadlines keep piling up. Laundry needs to be folded and children need to be cared for and funeral arrangements need to be made.
When someone else’s world stops, adjust your schedule to accommodate their pain. Offer to take their children to the park so they can have a few moments alone. Pick up a frozen meal that meets their dietary restrictions and drop it off on their front porch so they don’t have to plan dinner that night. Ask if you can pick up a load of laundry to wash, fold, and return, or to keep them company while they run errands. Understand that not everyone will want to be supported in the same way, but that tangible acts of service can feel more helpful than “let me know if you need anything.”
4. It’s been [weeks, months, years] already — haven’t you moved on yet?
While few of us would be brazen enough to say these exact words, we often communicate this sentiment through our actions. When we are impatient with tears or with delays in responding to texts or emails, we suggest to our grieving friend that they “should be over it” by now.
If someone living with loss has dropped the ball on a communication thread or doesn’t have the energy to sustain your relationship the way they did before, meet them in the middle of those moments. Remind yourself that grief does not follow a timeline and that its effects can be debilitating, causing insomnia, headaches, memory fog, and feelings of apathy toward general life activities. Birthdays, holidays, significant dates, and anniversaries of their loved one’s death can all trigger a resurgence of intense sadness. Consider setting a reminder in your calendar on these types of dates; new research shows that even a simple text telling them, “I’m thinking of you today” can mean a lot in those moments and remind your friend that you are aware of their ongoing feelings of loss.
At times, people are afraid to say the wrong thing or worry that checking in will “remind them of their loss.” Particularly in the days and weeks that follow a loss, there is rarely a time when a friend or loved one will not be thinking of the person they lost, and they will likely appreciate that someone is making the effort to hold space for their grief.
Your grieving friend does not expect you to know exactly what to say or when to say it. In fact, they know — more deeply than most — that no words or actions will take away their pain. If you don’t know what to do, it is more than okay to say something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry that you are experiencing such sadness. I want to be there for you, and I’m not quite sure how to do that, but I’m going to keep trying.”
Everyone feels grief differently and experiences its aftermath in different ways, and what is comforting to one person might be grating to another. Some people might want to talk about their loss, while another might need time to themself. When in doubt, ask the grieving person how you can be there for them, remind them that it’s okay if they don’t have an answer to that question in that moment (or at all), and continue to show up for them with love, care, and intention.