Question: "What sort of condolences should a Christian give someone who is hurting after the death of a loved one?"
Answer: Losing someone we love is one of the most painful experiences of life. When someone we care about suffers such a loss, it can be frustrating to know how to help. Many times we do nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing. But most who have experienced the death of a loved one appreciate compassionate expressions from others. Often, the best condolence is simply being there.
Many times we feel the need to eliminate the suffering of those in grief, but this is a wrong expectation and can lead to more harm than good. Worn out platitudes, cheery clichés, or unbiblical statements such as “God needed another angel” do nothing to help and force the grieving to pretend they are better for having heard it. If we feel we must voice a condolence, simply stating that we are sorry for their loss or that we are praying for them is adequate.
The most important aspect to remember is that grief is natural and healthy. We cannot adequately recover from a traumatic loss without allowing ourselves to go through the grieving process. God has equipped the human heart with mechanisms to help us deal with life-changing losses a little bit at a time. Friends of a grieving person need to remember that it is not our job to short-circuit that process. The best help allows the grieving person freedom to express grief however he or she needs to, whether through words, tears, silence, or anger. Knowing that a safe friend is there and can handle whatever he needs to say gives him comfort. Being a good listener is often the best gift we can give those who need to talk.
There are two approaches a Christian can take to comfort those who have lost a loved one. If we know the deceased was a follower of Christ, then there are many passages of Scripture to remind those left behind that death is not the enemy. Choosing opportune times to share scriptures such as Psalm 34:16–19; Psalm 147:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; and 2 Corinthians 5:8 can remind the grieving person that death is merely a changing of address.
For those who don’t have such hope in eternal life, a Christian can still be a trusted friend and listener. It can be helpful to share with the grieving person about the various stages he or she may go through in the grief process. Although everyone grieves differently, the following are some common stages we go through in coming to terms with the death of a significant person in our lives:
1. Initial shock – This may include expressions of denial and anger as the mind cannot accept all at once what has happened.
2. Numbness – This is God’s gift to us as we learn to deal with the loss one piece at a time.
3. Struggle between fantasy and reality – This stage involves thinking we hear the departed one’s voice, seeing a glimpse of her in a passing car, or reaching for the phone to call her.
4. Flood of grief – Often triggered by something trivial, months or years after the death, grief can flood in again, bringing the loss back in all its power. We dissolve in copious tears and mourning just when we’d thought we were past the initial pain.
5. Stabbing memories – Just when we think we are getting past it, someone who doesn’t know the situation will ask how the departed one is doing. An anniversary or another milestone passes without the loved one. The memories are painful but necessary. Talking about the memories with tears is healthy and a part of moving on.
6. Recovery – A “new normal” emerges, as we begin to believe that life will go on and there will come a day when we won’t hurt like we do now.
These stages are often repeated in a cycle until the heart has healed and moved on with life. The depth of emotion can be unsettling to a person who has never experienced grief before, so it can help him or her to know that the feelings are normal and won’t last forever. The first year after a loss is filled with these stages, and there is no set time limit for grief. The goal is to grieve adequately and then move past it. Grief is only destructive when we get stuck there and refuse to let God heal our hearts.
Many times death brings to the surface questions about eternity. If the grieving person initiates such a conversation, a Christian should take the opportunity to share the gospel. However, we should avoid speculating on the destination of the departed, as only God knows the soul condition of any person and where he is spending eternity. Focus instead upon the good news that Jesus has for the survivor. There are many testimonies of people giving their lives to Christ following the death of a loved one, as they came face to face with their own mortality. A Christian should stay sensitive to the situation and to the Holy Spirit’s leading to bring hope and comfort to those who are grieving.