My brother died in a car crash at the age of 20. I was 21. On the night of his visitation I stood beside my parents in an awkward spot in the middle of a too-small room as hundreds of people filed through a snaking line to shake our hands and offer their "condolences." Some people said things I've since forgotten. Some people said things I'll never forget. I wish I could forget. I've taken a Brillo pad to the memories, but alas, they persist.
I remember, "God just needed another angel." You know that's not how angels work, right?
I remember "God does things for a reason." Are you saying God killed my brother?
I remember a man who told me he understood exactly what I was going through because his sister had committed suicide the year before. Wait a minute. Hooowww do you think he died?
And I remember someone asking if he was drunk when he hit the tree. Whaaaaat?
There are a lot of ways to be stupid in a visitation receiving line. And a lot of ways to be stupid for weeks and months after.
Because so many of us say stupid stuff when our friends and loved ones experience loss, I thought I'd share four go-to things you can say, words that express the compassion and genuine concern you really do feel but struggle to convey:
1. This is not okay.
When a person loses someone they love the last thing they want to hear is an insincere, unfounded "It's all gonna be okay." What they want to know is that everyone else sees how totally unfair and terrible this is. When my brother died I hated everyone who wasn't hurting--the people driving in cars and going to jobs and watching movies. I wanted the world to stop and recognize my pain. I wanted every person to acknowledge the loss of this person I loved so much. I wanted to hear people say "Death is a jerk and a thief and I hate it." I wanted to hear people say, "This isn't how it should be." I wanted to hear people say, "God never intended this for His people. Death is not the plan." I wanted friends to gather around me and rage against the enemy.
Yes, it's good to remember the victory Christians experience, the eternal life God's people enjoy. That hope is a balm to the hurting. But remember, too, the grieving aren't experiencing the fullness of that victory at the moment. The full joy of heaven is for the dead, the sleeping. Not as much the living-here.
2. There are no rules.
When a person you love dies it's like the world hands you a script. This is how you'll behave at the coroner's. This is how you'll greet people who bring cakes to your house. This is how you pick out a coffin. This is what your dead family member wears in the coffin. This is what you wear to the funeral. This is how long you can be sad.
All of that is junk.
When I talk to people who're grieving I always say, "There are no rules for you to follow." If you want to wear shorts to the funeral because they're the shorts you wore in your favorite moment with your sister, wear the shorts. If you want to tell a joke in your funeral comments, do it. If you want to cry through the entire service, cry on. If you don't want to cry, don't. If you want to eat cereal from the box for the next 42 days, why not?
The grieving, particularly those primarily affected by the loss, can't bear the pressure of social expectations in those moments. So when they look at you and say, "I was thinking of playing Surfin' USA by the Beach Boys at the funeral. Is that too weird?" Respond generously, "If that's what you want, I think it's a great idea."
3. Can I pray?
Everyone tells you they're praying for you when you experience something tragic, and knowing those prayers are happening is an immeasurable blessing. What you hear far less often, however, are the actual prayers. What is it people are asking on my behalf? What words are people speaking to God about the pain I'm feeling? What do they want God to do for me and in me? Those questions are easily answered when we pray for the grieving with the grieving.
Sometimes I have the honor of praying with a grieving family in person, of putting my hands on their slumped shoulders and carrying them to throne of God on lifting words. Sometimes I have to do it over the phone or by text. I've prayed via Facebook and email and even Twitter direct message.
When we hear our friends and loved ones speak to God for us, we're comforted in a way that defies explanation. When we can't muster the courage or energy or hope or simply the presence of mind to seek God in prayer, we find ourselves buoyed and anchored by the words we hear and adopt as our own.
4. It's been two months. I'm coming over. I'm bringing cookies.
Words spoken within the first few weeks of the loss are good but can get lost in the cacophony of well-meaning, well-wishing voices. If you really want to say something they'll hear and appreciate, say it down the road. Checking in lets the grieving person know she's not forgotten (and neither is the person she loved). Accompanying your words with physical presence and a listening ear (and maybe something with sugar and butter) makes them all the more filling and helpful.
Also, while "Let me know how I can help" is kind, it puts the burden of "letting you know" on the person least capable of bearing it, basically ensuring you'll never be called upon to do anything. Instead of that, be pushy with your attention and assistance. Say exactly what you're going to do to help (make sure it's actually helpful) and do it. Don't wait to be asked.
5. Let me tell you a story...
There is pretty much nothing I'd rather hear than a story about my brother. Because his life is over, because he'll never do another new thing, other people's stories are the closest thing I have to a new experience with him. When people tell me about conversations they had with him I hang on their every word. When they tell me about something stupid he did I'm so glad to remember the full him, not just the polished version from the funeral. When people write me and say, "I met your brother when I was a kid and he gave me a piece of gum and I thought he was the coolest," that small, otherwise insignificant moment brings so much joy to my heart.
People think it's disrespectful to talk about people who've died with people who loved them. They think they're stirring up things that should maybe not be stirred. They stop talking when their words make me cry. I wish they wouldn't. The stirring is a bringing back to life. The tears are joy. And the stories are the best way I know of respecting the person I miss.
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If you're currently struggling to overcome grief or some other hardship, you might consider my online course, Field Notes. Field Notes teaches you to lean on writing as a tool to work through your pain and see God in it. You can check it out HERE.