Several years ago my friend’s son died. His name was Nathan and he was almost two months old when they lost him to SIDS — every parent’s nightmare. He was there and then he was gone. I can’t imagine the depth of their grief.
In the months that followed, my friend shared a few of the things people had said to him. Their desire to comfort was genuine, but some of the things they said were awful.
What do you say to someone whose heart is broken?
The basics are fairly simple:
1. Don’t say, “I know how you feel.”
Don’t ever, ever say it. A good friend of mine lost her dad when she was six. She still remembers the person who came to the funeral and said, “I know how you feel.” Shauna remembers yelling, “No you don’t!” and running from the church. Each loss is unique. Even if you have lost the same family member, say, “I know a little of what you’re going through.” But don’t say, “I know how you feel.” Loss is an utterly individual emotion. Even two people mourning the death of the same person will not have the same loss. No wonder it’s such an isolating experience.
2. Don’t say, “I can imagine what it’s like.”
This can be a tempting way to comfort, but in truth it’s no comfort at all. I made the mistake of saying it once and was gently corrected with a simple, “Actually, you can’t. You really can’t.” She was right. Learn from my mistake; don’t say it.
3. If you don’t know what to say, say that.
The simple honesty of, “I wish there was something I could say,” or, “I am so sorry that you’re going through this” is sometimes the best thing to say. Grief is all encompassing and takes away your words. It’s OK to say that you don’t know what you’re doing.
4. When you say “I’ll pray for you,” mean it.
If appropriate, pray with them, right in that moment. If it’s not the right time, pray as you walk away. Pray often. Pray relentlessly. More than anything you could ever say to someone who’s grieving, the things you say to God on their behalf will always help. Keep praying as time passes.
But how do we move beyond the basics? Heather Isaak’s article, How to Talk to the Broken Hearted, is a fantastic primer on what to do and what to avoid. So often our fear of saying the wrong thing makes us pull away, right at the moment when our grieving friend needs us the most. Read her article and be encouraged: helping a friend whose heart is breaking isn’t as hard as it sounds.