Friday, September 23, 2005

How not to comfort others

One of the things I've learned about grief is that it can sometimes turn the griever into a magnet for those who want to comment, offer advice, and attempt to comfort. Some people have the gift of being able to offer compassion and wisdom. Others are...well, let's just say that are less gifted in that area and perhaps should rethink their approach.

Here are some things I believe it is best not to do or say when attempting to comfort others:

1. "Well, you should be thankful it wasn't worse. My Great-Aunt Matilda..." This is not a contest to see whose relative died the most tragic death. It is not comforting to know that some have died quicker, or that some have died more prolonged and tortuous deaths, or that some spent their last days screaming in agony.

2. "You're not supposed to grieve like the heathen grieve. It says so right in the Bible. So, you better dry those tears and THANK GOD!" I take Jesus as my role model for grieving. He wept at the grave of someone He was planning on bringing back to life in mere moments, so I think it's not some wicked sin for me to grieve for someone I won't see again this side of Heaven. Besides, we're not forbidden to grieve. We grieve differently, since we have hope, and we have our Lord sharing our grief.

3. "That's nothing. Think of all the REAL suffering going on in the world. Why, right this very moment, there are people..." Again, this is not a contest. Knowing that someone else may have had their leg chopped off in a gruesome accident does not lessen the pain of having my toenail ripped off. If anything, now I'm distressed over my injury and all the other horror stories you told me in order to...I have no idea...certainly you didn't think you were cheering me up?!

4. "That reminds me of the time that I..." There are times when sharing your own pain and sorrowful experience can be helpful. However, I have to admit that sometimes when I've done this, I've been aghast to discover that I've inadvertently managed to turn the situation into being about me, rather than being about offering the comfort of God to someone who is suffering now.

5. "I know just how you feel, losing your husband. When my boyfriend broke up with me, I cried all day." Please don't trivialize widowhood by comparing it to losing a boyfriend of three months. (Someone actually did this!) When a head of household loses his/her job, it's not the same as the neighbor asking little Buford to take his lawn-mowing services elsewhere. Losing a beloved brother is not like losing a dog. (Trust me. I've gone through both.) Even if you think you have gone through something that is truly similar (e.g., you also lost your spouse) does not mean you know how the person feels. Their experience may be different than yours.

6. "If I were you..." You're not.

7. "Somehow I expected that, after going through this, you would ________" [Fill in the blank with, "act stronger", "cry more", "act like a better Christian", "not be such a wimp", whatever.] Please do not critique how others grieve. If they are in sin, that's a different story; certainly you shouldn't idly stand by while someone expresses their grief by robbing banks. However, you are not the grief police. Just because someone doesn't grieve by your rules does not mean you should take them to task.

8. "I really don't think what you went through was such a big deal. It isn't like you suffered or anything. What you experienced was just fleeting discomfort. I don't know why you're not over it yet." That isn't comfort. That's cruelty.

So what should you say? Not much, until you've listened...wept with those who are weeping...and listened some more. Then speak words of true comfort, how God has comforted you in your afflictions.


  1. #6 - There's nothing wrong with someone saying "If I were you..." It's just another way to dispense advice. Sometimes we don't want advice. Is there anything wrong with listening to it, though? Perhaps if someone says, "If I were you..." and they're way off base, you can turn it around and say, "Hey, wait a minute, that ain't right," and the end result might be you're helping them! But if someone says "if i were you..." that's just the same as starting with "here's what you should do..." No harm.

    #3 - Not always but more than likely what a person is going through is MINOR compared to what some others are going through. Yes, it is okay to tell someone that. It's wrong to be ignorant of the horrors of the world, especially as a Christian because we are commanded to help those in need... but to not know there is need is just as bad as not doing anything at all. Not in every situation would be okay to tell someone that people have it worse but in some situations, sure. Someone has their hand crushed, a piano player who will more than likely never play as beautifully ever again. That person may think it's the end of the world. Bad, yes... but is it as bad as the people who have their hands cut off because they use American money in certain places? Not quite.

    It's ALWAYS right to comfort first and not criticize. But if a person's pain is dwelled upon for what seems like ever and ever then it might be good to step in and say, "HEY, it's not as bad as it could be!!!"

    Sometimes the ol' kid gloves need to be removed and boxing gloves need to be used with force... but not too much force. Jesus wouldn't knock anyone down and walk away from them thinking, "Oh, well, that person's hopeless," but sometimes you might hafta shake a person up a little in order to help them.

    Have a nice day :)

  2. CW, thanks for your comments.

    You're right in that the "If I were you..." response may just be a well-meaning attempt to dispense comforting advice. Certainly there is nothing wrong in saying, "If I were you, I would probably be having just as rough a time as you are. What would help me is...but I don't know if that will help you."

    What I was referring to was the sort of response that is lacking in empathy or comfort, and that implies that the speaker would handle the situation far better than the one who is in need of comfort.

    As for pointing out that others have it worse --- yes, there is a place for that, down the line. However, for most people, it is not comforting and tends to have the result of the "comforter" coming across as insensitive, rather than as one who is willing to weep with those who weep.

    As one who really likes sparring, I found your boxing analogy perplexing. Yes, it can be comforting to don gloves and take out one's frustrations on the heavy bag or even on an opponent. But...that is for the grieving person to do, not for the comforter. Who on earth would want to beat up on, even in a friendly sparring match, someone who needs comforting?

    I know it's somewhat of a Christian "hobby" to shoot the wounded, but I think calling out those in grief and challenging them to fight should have no place in Christian circles. I simply do not see how this fits in with weeping with those who weep.

  3. I hope you don't mind that I found certain parts of this funny. :-)
    Having a child with special needs, we hear some of these remarks with a different slant, in a somewhat related context.

  4. Julana, I'm glad that you found certain parts funny. As my mother has often said, "Sometimes you either have to laugh or cry...and you get tired of crying." (That's our excuse for laughing about our personal trials calamities when other people think we should be more appropriately serious and somber.)

    I was going to put a somewhat unintionally hilarious and horribly misguided "comforting" attempt in as an example, but I feared the person responsible might get his/her feelings hurt if they read it. But it was sure tempting!