Three Things to Remember When Giving Comfort to Grieving People

By Randy Alcorn December 11, 2019

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). We tend to do better at rejoicing. Because we don’t like to feel pain, we tend to ignore others’ pain. But they need us to become the arms of Christ to them.

Here are three things to remember when we’re called upon to comfort those who are grieving, especially during this holiday season:

1. To ignore someone’s pain is to add to that pain.

Instead of fearing we’ll say the wrong thing, we should reach out to hurting people. Many times it’s better just to put our arms around someone and cry with them; people almost always appreciate it when you acknowledge their loss. Yet so long as your heart is right, saying something is nearly always better than saying nothing.

People need to feel loved. A hurting child needs to feel his father’s arms around him. When the father is away, he may leave written words of love, as God has in His Word. But he may also call on the child’s older brothers and sisters to express his love to his child.

2. There is a time for silence, to just sit and listen and weep with those who weep.

We often condemn Job’s friends, but we should remember that they started well. When they saw his misery, they wept aloud. And then for seven days and nights they sat with him, in silence, wordlessly expressing their concern for him (see Job 2:11–13).

If we don’t know what to say to a friend in crisis, remember that so long as Job’s friends remained quiet, they helped him bear his grief. Later, when they began giving unsolicited advice and rebuke, Job not only had to deal with his suffering, but with his friends’ smug responses, which added to his suffering.

When someone in pain expresses raw emotions, we shouldn’t scold them. Friends let friends share honest feelings. When the premature and misguided correction of Job’s friends hurt Job, they didn’t have sense enough to say, “I’m sorry,” and then shut up. They went right on hurting him. So Job said to them, “Miserable comforters are you all!” (16:2).

Darrell Scott told me that after his daughter Rachel was murdered at Columbine, people often quoted Romans 8:28 to him. He wasn’t ready to hear it. How sad that such a powerful verse, cited carelessly or prematurely, becomes a source of pain when it should offer great comfort. Think of God’s truths like tools. Don’t use a hammer when you need a wrench. And don’t use either when you need to give someone a hug, a blanket, or a meal—or just weep with them.

On the other hand, Nancy Guthrie says sufferers should extend grace to the insensitive comforters who hurt them. The last thing a grieving person needs is to take on the burden of resentment. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

3. Don’t disappear or avoid your friend who needs you now more than ever.

My mother died in 1981, when I was a young pastor. Ten years earlier, not long after I’d become a Christian, I had the joy of leading Mom to Christ. We grew together, reading and discussing Scripture and great books, praying and laughing together, and later fussing over my children, her granddaughters, Karina and Angela. When she died, I mourned my loss, my wife’s, and above all my children’s. I felt like part of me had been taken away.

As I walked into church that first Sunday after Mom’s death, I felt as though my presence parted the Red Sea. Instead of greeting me warmly in their usual way, people stepped aside. I knew they did it because they didn’t know what to say, yet it magnified my loneliness.

Most of us have seen friends disappear when we most needed them—and without meaning to, we’ve done the same to others. If you find yourself not wanting to make a phone call when you hear about someone’s crisis, remind yourself that any expression of concern is better than none. When people lose a loved one, they don’t want to “move on” as if the person never existed. Even if doing so makes them cry, usually they want and need to talk about them.

Here are some recommended books for those who are grieving (and those who are ministering to them):

Children and Grief: Helping Your Child Understand Death by Joey O’Connor: resource to help children deal with death, loss and grief.

Experiencing Grief by Norman Wright: a classic book on grief that leads readers through five essential stages of grief.

Five Cries of Grief: One Family’s Journey to Healing by Merton and Irene Strommen: written from a grieving parent’s perspective, provides strength, insight, and renewal for those who are grieving.

Good Grief by Granger E. Westberg: booklet that guides readers through the ten stages of grief.

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Jerry Sittser: shows that it’s how we respond to painful circumstances that allows us to experience growth in the midst of grief.

Holding on to Hope: A Pathway Through Suffering to the Heart of God by Nancy Guthrie: excellent book that is biblical, theologically sound, compassionate, and caring.

Journeying through Griefa set of four short books to share with grieving people throughout the first year after their loss. (Available from stephenministries.org.)

Letter to a Grieving Heart: Comfort and Hope for Those Who Hurt by Billy Sprague: shares words of comfort that carried the author through grief to a place of strength.

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence in God by various authors (contributors include John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and Randy Alcorn): A collection of writings encouraging believers to face death with a firm and confident belief in the character and promises of God.

Reflections of a Grieving Spouse: The Unexpected Journey from Loss to Renewed Hope by Norman Wright: help for those who have lost a spouse.

Tear Soup by Chuck DeKlyen, Taylor Bills, and Pat Schwiebert: a story picture book, beneficial for both children and adults.

When Life is Changed Forever By the Death of Someone by Rick Taylor: speaks to wounded hearts and offers a hope that life can be lived fully again.

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together by Dave and Nancy Guthrie: guides readers through the challenges of keeping their family together and strong.

Some readers have also found my books on Heaven and suffering to be helpful.

Photo by Ryan Crotty on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of fifty-some books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries