But I don't know
What to Say...

Author, Dave Ray, Founder of Core Ministries www.coreministries.com went to the Lord in 2005. Pray for his widow, Linda Ray.

What is appropriate to say to others who are dealing with grief?

I have spent 20 years involved in rescue, prison and jail ministries. I’m sure it is no surprise that many church members shun criminals. But many of you don’t know that church members also shun the victims of crime. WHY? One reason is that people just don’t know what to say so they stay away and say nothing. Many times this is also true about the victims’ families and friends who suffer collateral damage.

Besides the victims of crime you have victims of other human crises of a physical, emotional; and financial nature. Death of a loved one, cancer and loss of job are examples to illustrate the many conditions where people isolate the sufferers because they don’t know what to say. (In this article we are going to call all victims "sufferers.")

There have been friendships and family relationships severed because of an offense taken (justified or not) while someone was going through a crisis.

The purpose of this article is to make it easier to talk to all sufferers, their friends and families without triggering any bitterness. I also want to show sufferers that they too have a stake in maintaining relationships. In other words we need to help each other cope with the pains of life. My goal is to help define the appropriate way both parties deal with crises.

Here are two questions to consider before talking to sufferers:

         1.) In what stage of the grief process are they?
         2.) What is your relationship with them?

Question One: Where are they in the grief process? (Denial, Anger, Guilt, Depression, Acceptance.)

1. Denial [Numbness]. The body protects us from what is really happening. Over a period of time, reality needs to be faced but don’t rush it!

2. Anger. May be directed at the doctor, nurses, innocent bystanders, God, self, the clergy, or even someone else who has not experienced a similar loss.

3. Guilt. Guilt is anger turned inward. None of us is as kind, sensitive or thoughtful, as we would like to be, even to ourselves.

4. Depression. The simplest and most ordinary jobs become almost impossible to do. Looking forward to tomorrow or anything is impossible. This is the most difficult and frightening stage. We need to strive to talk and to keep those who seem to withdraw from us involved in daily life.

5. Acceptance. The time emerges when we begin to believe we will make it through. That doesn't mean things will be the same as they were, but it means we can cope.

Make your best guess as to where the person is in the grief process and remember it is better to err towards the "denial" stage than towards "acceptance."

Let’s look at a case where a young child dies of cancer after a long illness. The reason it would not be appropriate to say, "They are in a better place," isn’t because they aren’t (which all Christians believe heaven to be better). It’s because this early in the grief process, the parents aren’t grieving about where their dead child is — they are grieving about their pain and loss.

Question Two: What is your relationship with them? Identify your relationship using the following list.

1.) Stranger

2.) Acquaintance

3.) Friend

4.) Bosom Buddy

Family dynamics make it hard to have a family chart so just place family members in the four same categories based upon how close you really are.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I know that you don’t pick your family but God does. Many people say in the early stages of crisis they would rather talk to a family member than a friend and will more willingly accept help from family — even when they are not otherwise close. Remember God invented the family and crisis times are when families need to show support for each other.

There is a fine line between gossip, basic information and confidential details. When receiving or passing information ask yourself, "Do I/they need to know this in order to minister?" Only seek and give information needed for the appropriate relationship. (•Stranger • acquaintance •friend •bosom buddy)

Also say only what you feel is appropriate for the situation. For instance only a "bosom buddy" would talk about impotence with a person who just had prostate surgery and probably only when the sufferer is in the grief "Acceptance Stage". Apply the golden rule — "Would I appreciate what I’m about to say if the roles were reversed?" Ask yourself "Have I earned the right to say this?" Example: you don’t talk confidentially with an "Acquaintance" but you might with a "Friend."

For most situations you can say, "I’m so sorry." — and then let the sufferer direct the conversation. Ignore the pressure from inside yourself to say something profound. Your role is not to say some great wise thing; your role is to just be there. It is always appropriate to show concern.

Other safe things to say: • "I don’t have an answer but I care and I will be praying for you" • "If you ever want to talk I’m available." • "I don’t know what to say but I care." • "I don’t know what to do for you can you help me decide?" • "How would you like me to pray?" • "I’m sorry, it must be really tough." • "I’m your friend and want to help, you tell me how." • "Is there anything I can do for you? (Your family?)" Remember it is not your words that will be the most comfort but it will be your presence. A listening ear is most important! Many people do not want much conversation "until they deal with it" so don’t press for more talking until they are further into the grief process.

Also it is always appropriate to send a card or note, and don’t stop with one.

It is never appropriate to: • Isolate the sufferer and their family or friends • Deal with deep spiritual issues unless asked. The sufferer should direct that conversation.

"A careless word may kindle strife, A cruel word may wreck a life, A timely word may lessen stress, A loving word may heal and bless." Anonymous

YOU DON’T WANT TO SAY THE WRONG THING. In other than the "Acceptance stage" or when you are their spiritual leader it may not be helpful to say the following — so why take the chance? • "God answers all prayers with yes, no or wait" • "All things work together for good for those who love God..." • "God will never give you more than you can handle." • "Do you have any unconfessed sin?" • "God is in control" • "Have you prayed enough?" • "Is your faith as strong as it should be?" • "God is sovereign." Don’t forget many, if not most, of the above list are true and will be very comforting later in the grief process.

AFFINITY GROUP CONTACTS CAN BE VERY HELPFUL (People who have been there and done that.)

When my cancer first arrived they removed my shoulder and left my arm (a very rare operation). I searched the US and was able to talk to two men who told me what to expect when living with an arm without a shoulder. When the cancer returned to my right lung I found a person in the next town who had just had his lung removed. After recovery from the lung removal I faced the fact that when cancer returns it is most likely systemic and the goal changes from how to cure at all cost to how to live the best I can with cancer. I found a group of cancer survivors that were dealing with the active disease and met for 40 hours of sharing over a four-month period. All the above helped me tremendously in dealing with my crisis. This was after I was through the denial, anger, and guilt stages of the grief process. It may be demeaning to tell a person about another that has gone through something similar or even worse until later in their grief process.

If you have first-hand knowledge about the same type situation it is always appropriate to send a note explaining your willingness to talk if the person wants to. If a friend or a direct family member has gone through something similar and has something helpful to share then seek permission from them to give their name & phone number to the person suffering. Give it to them telling them they can contact if they want. It is always appropriate to mail a note saying, "I know a person who has experienced something similar to you. I have cleared it with them for you to contact them. I did not give them your name. Just introduce yourself as my friend."

Be sure the person you refer to is positive, hopeful and spiritually sound.

SUFFERERS: I can understand privacy but sufferers need to remember once the story is out they need to have an answer for their various relationship levels: (•Stranger • acquaintance •friend •bosom buddy)

Sufferers need to remember that others also suffer when they do. Try to make it as easy for them as you can. In times like these sufferers need family and friends’ concern and comfort. One thing I did when in the hospital was I had a family member record a daily message on a special phone number answering machine where people could call and get an update. Because my convalescence was a long one when I was discharged I recorded the message every day. People could phone and get updated without having to say a word. My convalescence was very painful so I didn’t want to talk much but I wanted my loved ones informed so they could pray for my needs. If they wanted to they could also leave a message on the answering machine and about half did. It was nice to listen to them without having to reply as in the beginning I always started to cry when I talked to love ones.

Sufferers can always say: • "Thanks for your concern. I would appreciate prayer for..." • "I’m not ready to discuss that now but please pray for... " • "Pray for me, us, spouse, family, strength, God’s peace, etc." • "Pray for me (us) specifically for..." (An issue appropriate for the level of relationship) • "I appreciate your friendship."


1.) Both you and sufferer need to work to maintain the relationship as it was before the crisis.

2.) Seek permission and give permission as to what level you should pray out loud about the sufferer’s situation.

3.) Sufferers don’t isolate ...it’s not good.

4.) Don’t give up on the relationship, as the sufferer will change as they progress through the grief process. (Denial, Anger, Guilt, Depression, Acceptance.)

5.) Sufferers talk about deep spiritual issues with your spiritual leader (Current pastor, past pastor, ministry leader, wise friend)

6.) When you become the sufferer cut some slack for others. As soon as your grief allows take the initiative to mend fences and get the relationship back to where it was pre crisis. The Minimum Goal is to stay in as much contact as you had before the crisis.

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