How to Avoid Foot in Mouth Syndrome

When someone is grieving, it’s best to think before we speak.

by Courtney Newbery

As the woman walked into the room, eyes puffy from crying, my normally chatty group of friends fell into a deafening silence. Glances were averted, and hands began busying themselves with any available distraction. An elephant was definitely in the room, and no one knew quite what to do with it.

Unable to handle the exhausting stillness, a well-intentioned friend blurted out, “You don’t have to cry about it. He’ll be in eternity one day.”

Hurt and frustrated, the grieving widow headed for the door.

Struggle for words

It’s hard to know what to say when people are grieving. We want to say something, but simple platitudes don’t feel sufficient, so often we say nothing at all. Silence, in the form of avoidance, can leave an even deeper wound than our bumbling words.

Loving people through their pain is the privilege we have as friends, family, and members of the body of Christ. But what do people really want to hear when they have suffered a loss?

As a former hospice counselor, I have had the intimate experience of walking through life and death with people. One of the most commonly asked questions I encountered was “How do I talk to my friend or family member about their loss?”

Based on my interaction with hundreds of grieving families, I have compiled suggestions on how to relate to someone who is grieving. These notes will allow you to compassionately comfort those who are hurting.

Do’s and don’ts

Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” There is no way to know how someone is feeling after a loss, no matter how similar a situation we may have faced. Telling a friend or family member that we know how she feels turns the focus off her (where it should be) and onto us (where it should not be).

Do say, “I have no idea how you’re feeling, but I am here for you.” This comment validates the feelings of your friend and provides her with a safe place. In the Bible, Job’s friends sat with him for seven days and said nothing (before opening their mouths with unsolicited advice) and simply offered him their support. A ministry of presence is life-giving to a friend in need.

Don’t say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” General statements like this are overwhelming to someone who is suffering. Rarely are people in grief able to generate ideas for ways to help, because their focus is on their loss.

Do say, “Let me watch your kids or come over and clean your kitchen.” Extending specific help to the griever is often more beneficial. Instead of making your services available whenever they are needed, just assume you are needed now. Take action instead of waiting for your friend to ask you, because he probably never will.

Don’t say, “It will get better.” Cognitively, a family member might know that her circumstances will change over time, but emotionally, she needs to be able to live in the moment. By making this statement, we inadvertently place a timeline on our friend’s grieving process. Instead of helping her through the feelings she is facing, we push her prematurely toward the future. We must stay in the present with our grieving friend.

Do say, “How can I pray for you?” Take your friend’s burdens directly to God. Only He can ultimately heal her heart. Calling a friend to prayer with us will either provide her a platform to articulate her thoughts or allow us the opportunity to put words to her hurt.

Don’t say, “Be strong. You don’t need to cry.” Sometimes people do need to cry. One of the most healing steps a grieving person can take is to let out his emotions through tears. Denying him permission to weep over his loss can lead to depression and prolonged suffering. We often discourage a friend from crying, because we are uncomfortable watching him walk through his grief. Mourning is difficult and messy, but necessary.

Do say, “Can I give you a hug?” Sometimes a simple gesture can convey a deeper meaning than any words. We can be the shoulder our friend uses to wipe his tears. People cry in front of those they trust. If a friend uses you as his giant tissue, know you are trusted.

Grieving like Jesus

In addition to these guidelines, we can learn much from Jesus about grieving and consoling others in their loss.

Jesus grieved at the loss of his friend, Lazarus. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and His sisters (John 11:5) and, upon hearing of his sickness, traveled to Bethany to be with his family.

Anger

When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. The Lord knew that Lazarus would be brought back to life, yet He chose to stay in the present moment with sisters Mary and Martha and grieve with them. John says, “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled” (v. 33, NLT). Jesus was angry at the sin of the world that causes death — specifically the death of his friend.

Anger is a common emotion when dealing with loss and grief. We become angry that someone we love was taken from us. Angry that we did not get a chance to say goodbye. Angry at God for not caring. The reasons for a person’s anger may differ, but they are all rooted in the same source: the hurt created by the brokenness of the world, which causes physical and spiritual death.

Tears

Jesus saw Mary weeping over the loss of her brother, and His response was to cry (v. 35). The Savior of the universe broke down into a sobbing mess. It seems that He was showing empathy toward Mary.

One of the most significant ways that we can comfort those who are suffering is to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, NKJV). This means, simply, get a box of tissues and sit on the couch with your friend. Be present in her time of need. Jesus also appears to be weeping over the brokenness of humanity, which has led to the death of Lazarus.

Follow through

Who is suffering from a loss right now? How can you use your words to comfort him or her with the same comfort you have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4)?

Make a list of three practical ways you can support a grieving friend, now or in the future. They are great opportunities to show the compassion of Jesus that He modeled here on earth.