Although grief is a universal experience, we respond differently to its onslaught, so it’s no wonder that words meant to comfort often add more suffering to an already heavy burden.

Advice, questions or comments made in the midst of our fellow human beings’ suffering sometimes straddle the line between a grave lack of empathy and a stinging lack of decency. One widow recounts how, after her husband’s death, some people, seeing the family’s bleak financial prospects, told her that only begging would help them survive, while others advised the 10 orphaned children to leave school as soon as possible and find work.

A couple who had lost their 21-year-old son were also given harsh words of comfort: “God chose you because you are strong,” one told them, while others marvelled at the fact that the couple was still mourning their child after the six months the so-called friends thought the mourning period should have lasted. Even harder to stomach were the words of those who were so sure that this loss could only be the result of divine punishment that they did not hesitate to express their convictions to the bereaved parents.

Such incidents, which are more common than we would like to believe, dispel the illusion that people understand or are sensitive to the suffering of others simply because they are also not immune to its effects. Perhaps most of us are not in the habit of dishing out unkind advice or remarks, nor do we have such a distorted view of the problems of others as in the examples given, but the danger of being “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) remains even when we have the best of intentions but lack sufficient skill in interacting with those who are suffering.

Words that do not help in times of suffering

When journalist David Pogue had the idea of asking his readers to share reactions and conversations that helped them in their time of grief, as well as those that were unhelpful or hurtful, he received an avalanche of responses from which all those who don’t know how to tread the thin ice of others’ suffering could learn.

The first rule of dealing with someone who is grieving, Pogue says, is not to put yourself in the spotlight by talking about how the other person’s pain (or other, older grief) is affecting you. Self-focused affirmations and stories not only fail to comfort the person who is suffering, but also force them to use their energy to comfort the other, who is not at the epicentre of the suffering at that moment.

Readers have reported how little they felt understood by those who insisted on telling their own story of loss, or expressed how they wouldn’t have been able to cope with what the bereaved person was going through, or tried to find explanations for what had happened (some asked if the deceased had a vice or hadn’t controlled their weight very well).

Another important rule is not to insist on presenting the good side of things. Even if it’s true that the deceased’s suffering is over, or that a couple who buried their child have (or are able to have) other children, or that a widow is young enough to remarry, to mention these things is to ignore the grief a person is going through and to push them to burn through the natural stages of grief to get to where you think they should be, according to your timetable.

“At least…” is one of the expressions we should never use when comforting someone who’s suffering a loss, whether it’s bereavement, divorce, a serious diagnosis or any other distress, says therapist Sarah Epstein. We’re used to making sense of everything that happens to us so that we can fit the dark parts into our life story, says Epstein, noting that we unwittingly do the same thing for those around us. For at least two reasons, we should stop this game of stringing together reasons for gratitude that we feel the bereaved should also notice. First, each person experiences grief at his or her own pace, and it is completely inappropriate to pressure the person to feel better before he or she has managed to work through all the negative emotions that loss brings. Secondly, sooner or later, each individual will find meaning in the loss, and so will adjust his or her narrative to include (or not include) positive aspects of the loss.

When those of us on the sidelines of loss begin to highlight the positive side of things, this effort can help us feel better. The problem is that our perspective doesn’t necessarily resonate with the grieving person; at worst, our encouragement can seem like an act of cruelty, making the pain pulsate more vividly because it is misunderstood and trivialised.

Many of the things we say to the bereaved are platitudes, or statements we’ve heard others say, that we think should work because we’re used to hearing them in consolation speeches, says therapist Whitney Goodman.

On her list of the most unhelpful things we say to someone in grief, Goodman includes telling them to move on from the painful event (which is exactly what a mourner would want to do if they had a magic wand), trying to diminish the grief by comparing it to what has happened to others, offering unsolicited advice (coupled with assurances that what we recommend will be a perfect antidote to the pain), talking about what we would have done in the situation, or, by far the most unthoughtful approach, trying to blame the sufferer for their condition.

Questions that (don’t) help with grief

Everyone carries their grief in a unique way, which is why we need to continually learn how to support each other, notes writer and actress Cariad Lloyd, in an article that delicately touches on many of the key issues of grief, whichever side of the fence we’re on. “Grief rips your skin off and leaves muscle and tissue open to the air. Your words don’t land on a thick skin, they sink into sinews and bump into bones”—a metaphor in which the author captures the ease with which we, however well-intentioned, can hurt a person overwhelmed by loss.

Resorting to silence because we don’t know what to say is by no means a solution, but when we do speak, we should calibrate our comments and questions with the utmost care, says Lloyd. The desire to know more details should not drive the conversation; it may be painful for the other person to recount recent events, so we need to consider whether the questions we have in mind will be helpful or simply satisfy our curiosity. Some questions are not only irrelevant, but are designed to minimise pain—for example, asking how many weeks along a lost pregnancy was has the implied intention of quantifying the pain.

Even the otherwise innocuous question “How are you?” can become anxiety-provoking for someone going through a confusing merry-go-round of states, so Lloyd suggests the gentler “How are you today?” to which the answer is more easily articulated. 

When we ask a bereaved person how they are, we want to show them that we have not forgotten them, that we are willing to listen to their struggles. But this simple question is often off-putting, says Christian author Nancy Guthrie, who has lost two children. Guthrie says her husband can’t cope with the question—it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s fine, but he feels it’s inappropriate to admit that he’s angry, that he’s having a terrible time, or that all the outlets to his former normalcy seem to have been blocked. In fact, nobody struggling to breathe in the vortex of loss needs to be pressured into giving the answer most often expected by those who ask: that things are beginning to settle down and suffering is being tamed.

Guthrie suggests a few questions to use instead of the limiting “How are you?”: “What is your grief like these days?” “Are there particular times of day or days of the week you’re finding especially hard?” “What can I do to help you get through the anniversary (or any other difficult day without your loved one)?” All these questions—and many more—really revolve around the same desire to find out how a person is feeling, but the difference is that they express closeness to the bereaved person’s pain, rather than merely getting a report on how they are coping in their new circumstances, Guthrie concludes.

Offer love, not clichés

It’s often easier to offer slogans and clichés that offer empty promises than to be willing to enter into the discomfort of someone else’s pain, listen to them, and offer the practical help they need.

Speaking for God and giving reasons why He allows pain typically falls short both emotionally and theologically, notes Christian author Diana Gruver. Equally misplaced is the suggestion that a higher level of spirituality would alleviate suffering—all we have is the promise of His presence in the midst of pain, not a “gospel of emotional prosperity.”

The desire to help sometimes manifests itself in hasty attempts to simplify complex issues and in insistent offers of unsolicited help (strongly recommending a book, diet, treatment, support group or event that the person does not want to attend). God’s promises are true, but when we share them with someone who is hurting, we need to be realistic about the challenges of the present instead of offering empty assurances (we can’t know that an illness will be cured, that the new job will be better than the previous one, or that the long-awaited child will finally be born, but we can be sure that God is preparing a tear-free future for those who love Him).

Helping a person through grief requires using everything you know about them, from their circumstances to their personality, so that the support offered is as relevant as possible to their needs, notes author Ann Douglas. Compassionate silence can be as comforting as the right words, says Douglas, after cataloguing around 100 responses from people who have suffered various losses.

“It wasn’t what people said but what they did that meant the most to me: sitting in awkward silence as I processed my loss; giving me time to find the words and speak; not judging while I cried,” one person wrote to him.

Douglas points out that it’s important to keep in touch with a grieving friend, even if (or especially if) they don’t respond to various messages and offers of contact. Caught up in the storm of overwhelming emotions, they may not be able to respond, but supportive words and actions should consistently let them know that we’re not going anywhere, at least not while they’re struggling in the web of grief.

We carry our grief in very different ways—some talk a lot, others barricade themselves in silence; some seek each other’s company, others isolate themselves. Even more perplexing is that some people’s grief manifests itself in alternating periods of needing solitude and needing support, and our patience and compassion may be how they manage to see God when darkness hides His presence.

“Let me know if you need anything”—this offer puts the burden of asking for help on the bereaved and is often a way of shirking the responsibility to support them in a concrete way, points out psychologist Ann Weber.

Instead of telling the grieving person to reach out to us when it’s hardest, we might roll up our sleeves and take on tasks that they may find difficult to juggle in the early days of loss (and perhaps for some time after): paying a bill, cooking dinner, picking up the kids from school, or taking them for a walk in the park.

In the throes of grief, it can be difficult for a person to pull themselves together to ask for help or to account for the things they need. Simple responsibilities are hard to fulfil when grief is enveloping the present, but life must go on.

Well chosen words can be comforting, but rarely can we offer a message that will completely change the perspective of someone who has suffered an irreparable loss. Beyond words, and more healing perhaps, can be the gift of our presence because, as a well-known Christian pastor and author observed, “the deeper the pain, the fewer words needed.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.