It’s hard to know what to say when someone dies. Let alone say the right thing. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s a lot. Sometimes it’s just to listen and to love. The important thing is never to rush through grief. Be patient. And see what Scripture has to say about mourning. But know this, there’s no magic set of words. There is, however, an important role for you to fill.
Mourning and Wailing and Not Rushing
Before saying anything to anyone, understand grief takes its toll in different ways. For some the mourning process is quick. They somehow immediately rely on God, knowing eternity is in view. They see God is just and trust Him. They know they can’t change what they can’t change. So they embrace a bit of the hurt and can function relatively soon.
For most, that’s not that case.
For most, it takes a long time of wailing and crying and hurting. For many, it means not being able to function quite the same for a while. Sometimes you never function the exact same way again. You’re changed. And that is okay. It’s good, even.
You might be tempted to jump the gun and utter 1 Thessalonians. Hold on. Understand that verse first. You don't want to hurt someone by mishandling it.
1 Thess is not to stop someone grieving. It’s not your place to halt that. 1 Thess is meant to gently remind the aggrieved that our hope is living. That those asleep in Christ will live. But it connotes grief is still felt. So if you’re impatiently gauging some timeline to say “move on!” you're neglecting them and God's plan for them. It's apathetic.
Apathy is dangerous to a person’s healing. Yes, it is true and comforting that God is sovereign. But He has a plan for their hurt.
So make sure that it’s not your goal to take their pain away.
Rather, help them embrace and understand their pain. Wail with them. Hurt with them. Love them.
It’s your place to serve. To build and support the community. And sometimes that just means being around, and being open to them. And helping them find avenues to get whatever roughed up, raw emotions out.
John Piper even says eat the bitter fruit of sorrow, it helps draw near God.
It takes facing the difficulty of death, before understanding the need for the comfort of God. It’s when we look at the storm that we appreciate He who commands the wind and the waves.
Some yell. Some cry. Some chop wood. Or any and all combinations of things. Be there with them. Mourn with them. Lament with them. That’s the first step in understanding what to say when someone dies.
Lamenting is one of those super effective ways to get the hurt out in the open, so that you can face it. Lamenting is all about groaning and admitting how sucky this is! It’s honesty and grit in saying “I am in pain,” and it is well needed.
The heart is faint, the groans are many, and someone is gone.
It’s a hole that deserves respect and time to look into. You can’t just fill it or cover it up. You must feel empty, and pray honestly about it. Help the aggrieved too, that God may fill their hole in the time He deems appropriate.
Otherwise, the person you’re with won’t be able to move on. It doesn’t happen until they’re ready. And they're ready when God wants them to be. Until then, help them be honest before Him. He will honor that.
Fasting and Praying
While lamenting before God is a form of prayer, it’s not the only style of prayer. Praying directly for healing is another. And it’s good but doesn’t encompass the reality of what’s happened.
Instead, consider praying like Christ.
Pray that someone’s faith would not fail. It puts the trust of someone’s life and salvation in the hands of God, where it belongs.
Pray in silence with the bereaved. Meditate on Scripture with them. Together, sit in the presence of God, knowing His grace and presence are enough. Knowing He is more empathetic than any else ever could be. And knowing He will not forsake you with all that pain.
In Scripture, when there is a death, many don’t eat. It’s okay. Let the people hurting fast in grief for their loved one. Don’t let them be unhealthy, but it’s an important part of mourning. It might be worth it to fast with them.
Even Christ said His disciples will fast once He is gone, but while the bridegroom was with them, why would they?
Well now someone is gone. There isn’t a more appropriate time to fast.
To fast in this hard time is to rely on God while simultaneously mourning. And there is no better time to mourn than while seeking after God.
As a reminder of how tough death is on people, when Lazarus died, who wept? The direct answer is Christ wept. He was moved by the fallen world, that death has come. His friend died, and it reminds how we have fallen from God.
For that reason, death is hard and it’s supposed to be. It’s separation from God and everyone else. Even though Christ was about to raise Lazarus, it still invokes tidal waves of emotion.
Therefore, Christ weeping is proof that it is a good to have that hurt.
Affirm that in people. Life is sacred and deserves to be grieved. Then remind them that Christ will raise the dead and you’ll wait together until the healing happens.
Peace in God
Death changes a person. But that change can be good. Memories, which today are sour, tomorrow might be sweet like honey again. They might be the very catalyst which God uses to push someone along the healing journey. Not only for them, but for others in mourning as well. Keep that in mind when with someone grieving.
Because healing and peace may seem far off. But it surrounds you like a mist in the morning.
There is peace in friendship. There is peace in the sovereignty of God. It may be hard to feel when the pain is loud, but it is there. Yet it's hard to see when death feels so heavy.
Truthfully, it is hard to find peace when a non-believer dies. Their fate isn’t life. And that hurts.
But having peace in God isn’t based on suffering. It’s based on unity. God’s grace is enough, and we know that. But someone who doesn’t believe in Him has no idea what that means. They are not unified with the Holy Spirit and don’t have that internal sense of God’s presence.
But God has given them you.
And you are filled with the Holy Spirit.
So, as an ambassador of Christ, your presence will be the extension of His. Go out of your way to be a consistent presence of empathy and holiness. Be loving. In that, be available to live out the great commission.
With believers, you’re a step ahead. You can access the discipleship sooner, and seek the Lord together. But with non-believers, you’re a step back, and need to be available to them.
A time to preach the gospel, for the glory of God and for their healing will come.
What you Shouldn’t Say
There are things you shouldn’t say. Sometimes you shouldn’t say anything. It’s kind of something you have to feel out. But if the person you’re with needs an outlet, you’ll get a sense of that. Help them release.
Again, they might scream. They might hit something. They might run. They might be silent. Just don’t rush their emotions.
Don’t say anything which jumps ahead of the current connection you have. Everything must come from a place of empathy, not apathy.
What you Should Say
When some of those hurting people yell, know it’s not at you, not really. But they need to exert any and all energy. Some people will need to be held. Some need an outlet as simple as going for a walk. You’ll see any and all combinations of it.
In those moments, you’ll have a chance to preach the gospel. But be mindful of the person. You need that empathetic connection first, to truly help them. Share your own story. And, very importantly, listen to them.
Be available to their needs. Once they sense that, then they will hear what you have to say.
So what is it you should say when someone dies?
It’s different for everyone. But it’s always something to let them know they aren’t alone. It’s okay to hurt. You can face the hurt together. There is hope. Especially in Christ.
Now, unfortunately, sometimes the stress of death comes with financial stress. Not everyone can afford a funeral. Fortunately, NewFire Giving has a text-to-give and text messaging service. You can reach out and see if anyone is willing to help.
Either way, your presence is what the person needs. It represents the hope of a unified life in Christ, and that is invaluable.