don’t let your words of comfort cause more pain

Yesterday found me rummaging around in a musty basement of an old antique store when I got the phone call from my weeping son about the massacre in a kindergarten in Connecticut.   I almost fell to my knees with the news, as we have a precious little 5 year old kindergartener in our family.   I could not imagine the horror facing those dear families, the long journey of pain awaiting them, for their sorrow will never be done.

Little beds that will never be slept in again.  Presents already wrapped and under the tree.  Barrettes found under the sofa next time the floor is swept.  A little car discovered in dad’s tool box next Spring.  Drawings scotch taped to the fridge, now and for always.  Little arms that will never again be wrapped around your neck.   No more whispers of “I love you, Mama.”

Grief.  Inexpressible grief.

Most of us want to help, we long to make it better for our friends who have been crushed by their own personal tragedy.  Sadly, however, too many of us add to the sorrow by saying the wrong thing …. “Heaven needed another little angel.”  Noooo!

I read an excellent article by Rev. Emily C. Heath in the Huffington Post this morning, and am including it here for everyone to read and pass along.  We mean well, but we have to speak well too.  Don’t let your words contribute to the grief, but let them be words of comfort.


Dealing With Grief: Five Things NOT to Say and Five Things to Say In a Trauma Involving Children

Rev Emily C Heathby Rev. Emily C. Heath, Clergy United Church of Christ

We often have no idea what to say in the face of senseless loss. That is especially true when children are the victims of tragedy. Today’s shooting in Connecticut is heartbreaking in so many ways, not the least of which is the staggering loss of children.

My first two years in ministry were spent as a chaplain assigned to the emergency department of a children’s hospital with a level one trauma center. During that ministry I saw so many senseless tragedies. I also heard some of the worst theology of my life coming from people who thought they were bringing comfort to the parents. More often than not, they weren’t. And often, they made the situation worse.

Here are five things not to say to grieving family and friends:

1. “God just needed another angel.”

Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills kids to fill celestial openings is neither faithful to God, nor helpful to grieving parents.

2. “Thank goodness you have other children,” or, “You’re young. You can have more kids.”

Children are not interchangeable or replaceable. The loss of a child will always be a loss, no matter how many other children a parent has or will have.

3. He/she was just on loan to you from God.

The message is that God is so capricious that God will break parents’ hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.

4. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.

Actually, some people do get a lot more than any one person should ever have to handle. And it doesn’t come from God. Don’t trivialize someone’s grief with a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality.

5. We may not understand it, but this was God’s will.

Unless you are God, don’t use this line.

And here are five things to say:

1. I don’t believe God wanted this or willed it.

A grieving friend or family member is likely hearing that this is God’s will from a number of other people. Affirm the idea that it may very well not be.

2. It’s okay to be angry, and I’m a safe person for you express that anger to if you need it.

Anger is an essential part of the grieving process, but many don’t know where to talk about it because they are often silenced by others when they express their feelings. (For instance, they may be told they have no right to be angry at God.) By saying you are a safe person to share all feelings, including anger, with, you help the grieving person know where they can turn.

3. It’s not okay.

It seems so obvious, but sometimes this doesn’t get said. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit. Sometimes nothing works out right. And sometimes there is no way to fix it. Naming it can be helpful for some because it lets them know you won’t sugarcoat their grief.

4. I don’t know why this happened.

When trauma happens, the shock and emotion comes first. But not long after comes our human need to try to explain “why?” The reality is that often we cannot. The grieving person will likely have heard a lot of theories about why a trauma occurred. Sometimes it’s best not to add to the chorus, but to just acknowledge what you do not know.

5. I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here to support you in whatever way feels best.

Even if you have faced a similar loss, remember that each loss is different. Saying “I know how you’re feeling” is often untrue. Instead, ask how the grieving person is feeling. And then ask what you can do to help. Then, do it and respect the boundaries around what they don’t want help with at this point. You will be putting some control back into the hands of the grieving person, who often feels like they have lost so much of it.

Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter:


4 thoughts on “don’t let your words of comfort cause more pain

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’m going to post this to FB, if you don’t mind. We may not agree on gun control, but we do agree on God control.

  2. This is so very timely, a reminder for those who already (or should) know, and good information for those who do no. Thank you.

  3. I like this article
    Another good thing to say is
    I am sorry this happened to you
    I am sorry this was done to you
    I cannot tell you how much these simple words mean to me. No fancy explainations or Bible verses or platitudes…. please!

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