Comforting Grieving People and Encouraging Them to Hold on to Solid Truth

Nancy Guthrie’s disabled daughter, Hope, died after living through 199 days of seizures and other complications from Zellweger syndrome, a rare and fatal genetic abnormality. Nancy writes in her book Holding on to Hope,

The day after we buried Hope, my husband said to me, “You know, I think we expected our faith to make this hurt less, but it doesn’t. Our faith gave us an incredible amount of strength and encouragement while we had Hope, and we are comforted by the knowledge that she is in heaven. Our faith keeps us from being swallowed by despair. But I don’t think it makes our loss hurt any less.”

Their pain didn’t decrease because they believed; rather, their faith kept their pain from incapacitating them. When I interviewed David and Nancy Guthrie for my book If God Is Good, they said God stood with them in their pain, but God did not remove their pain. Those separated in death from their loved ones don’t want the pain to go away entirely, because if it did, it would minimize the importance of their relationship. Nancy says,

It is only natural that people around me often ask searchingly, “How are you?” And for much of the first year after Hope’s death, my answer was, “I’m deeply and profoundly sad.” I’ve been blessed with many people who have been willing to share my sorrow, to just be sad with me. Others, however, seem to want to rush me through my sadness. They want to fix me. But I lost someone I loved dearly, and I’m sad.

Nancy was in the final stages of writing Holding on to Hope when she found out she was pregnant with another baby, who was also born with Zellweger syndrome. That child, Gabriel, lived for six months.

David, after the deaths of two of his children, said, “We found our suffering has taught us life isn’t easy, and it has toughened us for the next battle. We don’t want our greatest spiritual landmarks to be behind us. Following Christ comes with struggle, not ease.”

David also told me, “I spent my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. The shoe has dropped. I had thought I was invulnerable. Now I know better. I thought, ‘Our child has died. How much worse can it get?’ There’s less to fear. God will be enough for us. Now we say it out of experience.”

Nancy has written many books over the years, including What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts), which one of our staff read and recommended to me. I always love Nancy’s writings, but this book is just really good. Here are some quotes from it:

What Grieving People Wish You Knew“Sometimes when we’re talking with someone who is grieving, we are so desperate to provide comfort, we’re willing to say things we think she wants to hear that aren’t necessarily true. But as much as we want to provide comfort in the moment, we need to remember that anything we say that is not ultimately true will ultimately disappoint. While we don’t have to say everything we deem to be true, we do want to refrain from compromising, twisting, or abandoning the truth found in the Scriptures regarding life beyond this life in the presence of God. We don’t want to gut the gospel in order to give comfort in the moment.” (p. 131)

“While tears can be awkward for everyone, tears are really such a gift. Tears have a way of washing away or carrying away the toxicity of the pain of the grief. …When someone cries in your presence, don’t be afraid that you made her cry. You don’t have to apologize. You did not make her cry; you simply brought to the surface what was there anyway and needed to be released.” (p. 35)

“Grief is like a lens or veil through which those going through it see and experience everything. It’s like a computer program running in the background at all times. When we speak to a grieving person about the one who died, and they begin to weep, it’s not that we ‘made them cry.’ Rather, we’ve acknowledged what was beneath the surface and given them an opportunity to release some of that sadness that was already there.” (p. 85)

“As we interact with grieving people, we want to encourage them to take hold of what God has seen fit to tell us in the Scriptures about life in his presence after death and to ask him for the grace to let that be enough for now.” (p. 146)

“So much of what other people say and what grieving people are tempted to grab hold of in the face of death is mere sentimentality or strange spirituality. Instead of taking hold of these things, we want to encourage grieving people to rely fully on the Scriptures and let the rock-solid truth revealed there be the ground underneath our unsteady feet and the anchor for our hopes.” (p. 146)

“We don’t want to use the truth of heaven in a way that seems to dismiss sorrow. But we do want to have our attitudes and responses to grieving people shaped by this profound reality. So rather than ‘He’s in a better place,’ you can assure those grieving a loved one, who knew Christ, this way: ‘This one you love is being comforted by the environment of heaven, by the inhabitants of heaven, by the beauty of heaven, and by the king of heaven [Luke 16:25]. He or she is completely comfortable, completely satisfied, completely at rest in a place that is far better. I know it doesn’t feel better to you that he is there, but I’m praying that the Holy Spirit will comfort you with a growing sense of the joy he is experiencing there and the anticipation of one day sharing it with him.’” (p. 136)

Photo by Kampus Production

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries