Sympathy, the Old-Fashioned Way

...or how Christians can stop emotionally assaulting one another.

Our 3 year-old son died for no medically known reason almost 4 years ago. The more time that passes, the more people ask for my advice on grief. "What should we do for so and so? How can I help? What should I say?" These suggestions are particularly aimed at those who've lost someone under their roof - a spouse or child. These mourners need to be handled in a gentler way.

Particularly as Christians, we must learn to be people of empathy not sympathy.

1. At the hospital/hospice center/visitation/funeral,

There is absolutely nothing you can say that will better the situation. Hug them. Cry with them. Rub their backs. Listen. Ask what they need, then do it. One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed sums it up best,

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear...[I]t feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in what anyone says. Yet I want others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me."

My suggestions for visitations and funerals are to say, "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you. Let me know if there's anything else I can do." Hug them, and BE QUIET.

- Do not add adjectives to their new reality. "Unimaginable. Unbearable. Awful. Tragic. I would never survive this."
- Do not make small talk.
- Do not ask specifics about arrangements, etc.
- Do not say "At least..."
- Do not say, "God will never give you more than you can handle."
- Do not say, "God will work everything together for good."
- Do not say, "He/she is in a better place."

If the mourner seems of sound mind, you might want to share your favorite memory of their loved one. Otherwise, repeat after me, only say, "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you," and BE QUIET. Because there are some losses that are unspeakable. I cannot tell you about the clergy I'd never met who wanted to use my son's visitation to preach a sermon over me. Not the time. I remember nothing of what they said. I remember getting hugs for 4 hours. I don't remember their babble because there truly is nothing you can say except, everybody now, "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you."

2. On your card, BE QUIET.

I kept every single card we received, even cards from people I've never met. When our most painful anniversaries approach, I go through the two huge bags of cards again. The vast majority were so comforting, and they encourage me still. But amidst my tears, I had to laugh out loud at the crazy number of cards that began with "There are no words..." and proceeded to wax poetic for several paragraphs on their version of heaven, angels, finding meaning in death, and what they think my son is doing in heaven. BE QUIET.

Let Scripture speak. Write a comforting verse. Share a special memory of their loved one. One more time, "I'm so sorry. I love you. I'm praying for you."

3. Send food, donations to charities, books, candles, blankets, and journals.  

There's a reason "things have always been done this way." The old ways survived for a reason. A comment on social media will not help me when I haven't eaten in 3 days. A sad emoji on social media will not bring me comfort when I'm sitting in a house alone.

Show up. Take food. Be present. Pray with them. Will you be uncomfortable? Yes. Walking into someone's darkest hour is never easy. If you love them, you'll do it anyway. We are called to care for the body of Christ, but trust me, there are many religious people who will keep walking by while you are beaten, bloody, and unconscious on the side of the road. It makes them uncomfortable to be around so much pain. Other people will take care of them, they say. 

The most meaningful "visits" in our first early weeks were from people who went through the guestbook and cards on our couch. People brought toys for our younger son. Friends stayed up all night with me so I wouldn't be alone. Family took me on silent walks around the block when I couldn't breathe. My best friend lit candles, played music, and turned every TV on HGTV (where there's always a happy ending). I remember nothing comforting that anyone said in the early weeks. I just remember they were there.

Show up. Take food. Be present. Pray with them.

4. Most importantly, when you see them weeks, months, or years later and realize you didn't go to the hospital/hospice center/visitation/funeral, BE QUIET.

Months after our son died we attended a much anticipated pastors' conference in a beautiful location. We were so looking forward to this respite on our grief journey. The entire weekend was a complete nightmare. Pastors, who did not know us at all, stopped us in the buffet line, by the pool, in the hallway to tell us how sorry they were for our loss, to ask how our son died. Every venture out of our hotel room became this Ninja Warrior battering ram experience of being emotionally assaulted on all sides by clergy, who in my opinion should know better.

As Beth Moore says in the Introduction to Mary Beth Chapman's grief memoir, Choosing to See:

"I could hardly make the word 'Maria' come out of my mouth because, after decades of interacting with women, I knew that the name of every lost child is sacred to the grieving mother. A person is wise to use it with great care and caution because the stab of pain it will invariably cause had better be worth it."

My cousin Lindsey, who lost her mom at a young age, coined the graphic term, "emotionally assaulted." It's perfect. Listen, I've finally gotten myself together enough to go on a trip. Or I'm just trying to get through the grocery store. Better yet, I'm just trying to check my social media account. Do not unload about how sorry you were you couldn't be present for the worst day of my life because you had to do X, Y, and Z.


Are you offering sympathy because the mourner needs it, or because you forgot to send a card? If it's the latter, BE QUIET and send a card. Do not emotionally assault someone who is just trying to get through their day.

Again, I am only speaking of distant friends and acquaintances. And I can only speak to traumatic losses of someone under your roof, who is bound up in your every thought and action. But if I haven't seen you in years, we are not close, and I'm sorry that you feel guilty that you couldn't be there. That's great that you feel so sorry for me, but please don't drag me back to the darkest moment of my life to assuage your guilt.

5. Finally, don't forget.

Put a reminder in your phone. Mark the date on a calendar. Commit to co-suffering with them for the long haul. One friend at church who I didn't know that well gave me a card with Scripture every Sunday for the entire first year. I have distant friends who send cards every year on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. By the third year, people start forgetting. You grieve all over again as people forget your loved one. Remember!

Christians, we can do better. There are broken hearts in every pew. We can love better than this. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting world, tangible extensions of His mercy. Learn from the old ways. There's a reason your grandmother always had fancy stationary and well-used casserole dishes. Because old-fashioned sympathy is really another way of expressing empathy.

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