For many of us, comforting a person who has just lost a loved one is uncomfortable. We don't know what to say or do. Maybe the person is grieving a loss that we haven't experienced before, or even if we have, we recognize that their loss is uniquely their own. At a loss for words, we rely on what we think would help. A grieving person is sad, so we assume they need encouragement. A grieving person seems hopeless and we want to provide them with hope.
As people who look to the Bible as our source of truth and guidance, we can be quick to share Bible verses with grievers. After all, the Bible has some wonderful hope-filled things to say. It seems like a safe bet when our own words sound so feeble and fumbling.
Some of us might look at grievers who are followers of Jesus and think that they are grieving the wrong way. The Bible tells us that we not to grieve as those who have no hope, but it seems like our grieving friend or family member missed the memo. Like well-meaning amateur spiritual detectives, we search out signs that someone is grieving the wrong way and decide to help by sharing a Bible verse with them.
If they feel like they can't go on without their loved one, we remind them that "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11).
If someone feels hopeless and like their life may never be good again, we give them a dose of "for I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plan to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).
If their loved one was suffering but is now with the Lord we remind them that "better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere" (Psalm 84:1).
It's confusing when the person we share these verses with doesn't respond the way we hoped. Instead of being comforted and grateful, they may withdraw or even seem angry and hurt. We've shared the best we had to share and it backfired, making us hesitate to try to bring comfort again.
What's going on here?
Part of the problem is that we have misdiagnosed the situation. What a grieving person needs most of all is freedom to grieve. In Romans 12, we are given instructions on how people who follow Jesus are to show love to one another. Among the instructions is verse 15 which says, "rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). Oh how this goes against our instincts! We want to cheer up people who are mourning but instead we are told that true love joins the person in their sorrow and mourns with them.
We must be careful to not force-feed grievers the medicine of encouraging scripture when what they need most os the healing balm of lament. We think we have the right medicine - and maybe we do - but we are giving it at the wrong time. Like an impatient caregiver who wants to get back to their other tasks, we hold their nose shut until their mouth is forced open so we can shove in the medicine that they are refusing. This is not love.
Hope-filled verses can shut down and shut up a person who is in deep grief and pain. More than encouragement and promises from Scripture, they need a safe place to release their pain. This takes time. Anger, frustration, sorrow, despair, rage, confusion, guilt, fear, trauma, agony, and pain are not only normal but are the right reaction to something as horrible as death. Like the grotesque puss and fever that accompany an infection when the immune system has been aroused and is putting up a fight, we rage against death because it should not be. To try to squash the outpouring of pain is to prevent the real healing that needs to take place. Grieving people, like infected wounds, look far worse before they look better. An expert surgeon removes infected tissue before closing a wound. Closing a festering wound will do nothing but cause more harm. So it is with our grief.
When we let grieving people pour out their pain without trying to fix it or find some sort of positive spin, we help them experience the love and tenderness of God.
If you share anything from the Bible with them, let it be that God is strong enough to handle every raw emotion that they throw at him. Let it be that the Bible is full of people who followed God and doubted His goodness or raged at Him when their lives fell apart. Tell them that Jesus himself wept over death and was moved with compassion. He didn't give grieving people encouraging words, he raised their love ones from the dead! Let them know that Jesus experienced all the horrors of death himself so that he could ultimately defeat death and bring us the promise of eternal life.
Or maybe just show up at their doorstep with a coffee and sit and cry with them. You cannot fix their pain and they aren't expecting you to do so. But you can join them in it. You can, for a moment, help them feel a little less alone. This is love.
For helpful advice on caring well for grieving people:
Nancy Guthrie: What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (And What Really Hurts)
Kenneth Haugk: Don't Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering