Comfort: to lessen someone’s feelings of grief or distress.
Often people mean well by things they say to the one enduring grief, but the result can be the opposite of comfort. Often the things said simply renew the pain, repeat the obvious and remind of the absence. In people’s attempt to ease our pain, they come across as minimizing it. And if your comment somehow underrates the knife in my heart, you aren’t helping me, you’re actually twisting the blade unknowingly.
Here are the most common comments widows get, which sometimes can simply make our grief feel diminished. Which hurts. Not every widow will feel this way over every comment, but these represent common internal responses.
“You will see him again”
When I lost my husband, this rubbed as the most irritating comment, even though I believed it. Does the fact that I’ll see him again change the fact that for the rest of my earthly life he won’t be here? For the rest of my children’s earthly lives he won’t be present? When people made this comment, it made me feel as if I should somehow be less sad than I was. It pressured me to feel a joy and peace I couldn’t feel. It didn’t comfort. It reminded me, once again, of the fact that even when I see him, it will never be the same. When I do see him again, it won’t be as my husband, but as a fellow believer. And right now that thought makes me sadder, not better.
“Stay strong” or “You’re so strong”
When all I see is a tornado inside me and when you see but a fraction of my coping, your comment simply makes me scoff on the inside. Why? First, I do not want to be strong. I want to be weak. Second, because it causes the mentality that I can’t break down and must keep it all together to persist in my mind. And carrying the burden of staying strong while carrying the burden of grief is simply too much to bear. I must break down. I must be weak. And I need a support system to lean upon.
“At least he’s in a better place and no longer in pain”
I know. I do know. But even though he may not be in pain, I am! He may be in a better place, but what is left is my hurt! Is there relief in knowing that he is no longer suffering? Of course. This comment may make me feel you are minimizing my pain by referencing the absence of his.
“It must have been God’s will” or “Everything happens for a reason”
Very, very few people would actually be comforted by this, though some may be. Even if they believe it. There is a difference between stating a truth and offering a comfort. It helps to know the difference. Not every truth or fact necessarily needs to be stated in the midst of grief. Just because it was God’s will and God allowed it, doesn’t negate the tangible, life altering pain. If you say this as a way to comfort someone, understand that even solid faith in the sovereignty of God, doesn’t deny the power of the God-given emotions of grief and loss. Looking at an amputee whose leg just got cut off and saying “it was God’s will” doesn’t take away the drastic amount of adjustment and turmoil their amputation will incur.
“It could be worse, it could be(fill in the blank)”
How in heavens would it be comforting to remind me how it could be worse??? A reality check is due when someone is in the clutches of self-pity, not grief. And there is a difference. An extreme difference. It’s like offering the Heimlich Maneuver when I’m fainting from exhaustion. A wrong intervention. The unwarranted help that causes more pain than helps.
“I know what you’re going through”
Human nature likes to compare and liken, compete and contrast. Just don’t. Human nature is often wrong. Don’t liken your loss to mine, unless you are actually a fellow widow. If you say you know, but you haven’t had my kind of loss, all you do is irritate. If you say you understand my pain, while going home to your own spouse, my response won’t be comfort. Yes, grief is grief. Pain is pain. But no two are the same. If you want to comfort me, don’t talk about you. And please don’t liken a divorce to widowhood. They’re very different, each with unique corresponding struggles and issues. While divorce is extremely painful, I was not given the option of whether I wanted to keep my spouse. It was brutally taken. With no chance for redemption.
“You’re still young, you can find someone else.”
This is like saying to someone whose arm is paralyzed, “at least you can use your other one”. It’s not helpful. It once again downplays the hurt in my heart. Since I can get another, losing this one shouldn’t be so hard. To put it in perspective, it’s like a transplant patient waiting to receive an organ. The wait is long, hard, with low probability of success. The wait you endure wreaks havoc on the system, weakening you. And even when a transplant happens, there is more adjustment that comes with it. As I grieve someone who was dear to me, this comment makes them sound replaceable, and can feel like a punch in the gut. Not comfort.
“You’re not alone”
Whether you mean physically that I have support of friends and family or spiritually that God is always with me….. Please….. Neither of those is the same as having a spouse. A living breathing person in bed with you at night. A partner with parenting your kids. A person to share the intimate details of life. Yes, God is God. He and only He can complete you, but He is the one who designed the intimacy of marriage. You telling me I’m not alone doesn’t help me feel less lonely in the dark of night in a barren bed, when the innermost thoughts in my heart get left unsaid.
If you want to comfort someone in grief….. Honor their grief. Honor their loved one. Acknowledge their pain. Acknowledge their loved one. Give room for them to be weak. Give permission to hurt instead of trying to minimize the hurt. Aid their worries and stresses. And sometimes, nothing has to be said. Just be.
When Job (from the Bible) lost his children, his health and his provisions, his friends came and sat with him for seven days. In silence. Simply your presence can be most encouraging. No words necessary.
If you want to do more, follow through with physical, tangible help that alleviates stress and SHOWS the person they have support.