If You REALLY Want to Help those Who Grieve

We sat on the couch, side by side, but miles apart.  She had just lost her son in a tragic accident.  I had four living and healthy boys — and no words that could touch her loss.  In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote notes, shared Scripture verses, listened to her sadness, and showed up at her door bearing food, but never feeling confident that any of it held meaning, and often feeling as if I was missing the whole point.

Nancy Guthrie writes to bring clarity and a measure of confidence to people like me:  those of us who want to help and bring comfort to our grieving friends, but want to avoid saying all the wrong words and assuming things that are not true.  Her “research” for What Grieving People Wish You Knew was gritty and uninvited, and began on the day when her infant daughter Hope was diagnosed with a rare and fatal metabolic disorder.  Grief “barged through the door,” and Hope’s 199-day life was a day-by-day good bye that was all too short.

Certainly, this experience alone would qualify a well-known Bible teacher like Nancy to speak wisdom into the lives of those who grieve, but then, a year and a half after Hope’s death, Nancy discovered that she was, once again, pregnant with a baby who had the fatal syndrome and who also lived for about six months.  Working through all this sadness sharpened Nancy’s awareness that often, when Christians try to help those who have suffered losses, we mainly reveal that we just don’t “get it.”

In response, she conducted an online survey in which she asked grieving people for examples of what others said or did for them that proved to be helpful and meaningful. She shares many of these suggestions in her book, and they were truly a highlight, including thoughts as simple (and as obvious) as using the name of the deceased in casual conversation or sharing pictures and memories with family members.

Under the best of circumstances I’m not a great conversationalist, so it was a relief to me to hear the news that “it matters less what you say than that you say something.”  In fact, “even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving.”  This is absolutely critical, and with that taken care of, Nancy goes on to provide additional insights:

  • Grieving is as unique as the individuals who grieve.  There is no one-size-fits-all comfort formula.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Don’t assume anything about their feelings, about the spiritual condition of the deceased, or that your own grief experience is comparable — or helpful to share.
  • Don’t feel the need to be a fixer.
  • Examine your heart for selfish motives in your caring or for a warped tendency to get your own need for significance met by ministering to your grieving friend.

Nancy quotes Dr. Kenneth Haugk who cautions us that if you hear yourself starting a sentence with the words “Well, I . . “; “When I . . .”; “I remember . . .”; or “My . . . ” — just don’t say it.

Other red flags that call for a re-thinking of our words include:

“Well, at least . . .”
“It was God’s will . . .”
“I know someone else who . . .”
“God took him/her so that . . .”

According to Nancy, one of the best statements you can make is “I don’t what what to say,” while one of the incorrect assumptions we make is that the grieving family is being ministered to by people who are “closer” to them, or, even worse, that they would rather just be left alone.  Showing up makes a powerful statement of support.

Esteeming the grief of those we love will look like patience and will keep us from putting a deadline on someone else’s grieving process.  It will keep us from looking away when they cry, and will give us courage to shed our own tears in their presence, because this demonstrates the fact that their loved one is worth grieving for.  Our shared sadness is tangible evidence of our love.

Nancy and her husband David host respite retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are actively involved in GriefShare which offers a ministry of education and counseling for those who are walking through loss.  She encourages grieving families to laugh and reminisce together and to seek community rather than trying to soldier their way through healing alone.

Over the long haul, friends who mark their calendar to remind them of anniversaries and birthdays, who provide practical help ranging from the casserole brigade to the repair of the broken back step, who offer to baby sit for children, or contribute money for the onslaught of expenses are truly demonstrating the love of Christ and are helping their grieving friends move toward healing and hope.

What Grieving People Wish You Knew is a resource of words and ideas, and it’s a gift to readers which will certainly result in greater courage and a more sensitive engagement of the Body of Christ with those who need to experience first hand the love and mercy of God.


This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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58 thoughts on “If You REALLY Want to Help those Who Grieve”

  1. Wow, what valuable insight, Michele! I especially appreciate the point about watching our own warped motivations, like feeling significant because we’re helping someone. I’ve seen that in myself and try to just let it go, let it go, let it go.


  2. This is a book I need to purchase. At this time in my life, I know reading Nancy’s words will affirm some of the grief I am feeling as well as help me understand perhaps where others are coming from when they try to help but really do not know what that looks like. In my own loss of my dad, I am learning that just the presence of others is what I need. I didn’t have a clue what I needed after my mom passed because it was so raw. God is good to teach us through the difficult. Thank you for always reviewing books. Believe it or not, I find ones that are meant just for me.


  3. What a helpful and encouraging post, Michele! And what wisdom, from both sides of grief. Having lost a child, the physical presence of someone who cared was sometimes the best care that could be offered. On both sides, a non-intrusive touch can also be powerful. And on the practical side, always have a fresh pocket pack of tissues. Thank you for sharing. Today we’re neighbors at Kelly’s.


  4. Michele, I have this book and could not agree more with what you’ve written … it is a wonderful resource! The quotes from parents who have lost children are gut-wrenching at times, but so very eye opening and helpful. I’m so glad you wrote this …


  5. This sounds like great book and much-needed. I think a lot of us long to be there for those who are grieving but worry that we don’t know what to say or how to bring comfort. The advice you shared here is really helpful.


  6. This sounds like such a great book, Michele. What heartbreaking losses Nancy went through! I’m so glad she’s sharing her insight. This reminds me of a story I once heard of an elderly man who lost his wife. The little neighbor boy visited him and sat on his lap. He said nothing. He just cried with him. Thank you for sharing! Love and hugs!


  7. This sounds like a great resource. Because I struggle with ministering to the grieving. Thanks for sharing! Blessings!


  8. Michele,
    I have been on the receiving end of well intentioned, but unhelpful words. I think people feel like they need to say something when they would be better off imitating Christ’s example of not saying a word, and like Jesus did, He shared in His friends’ sorrow and wept with them. Even scripture is not the best thing to be quoted to someone who is grieving. I agree – showing up and being a shoulder to lean and cry on is often the best thing and the fewer words said the better.


    1. Thank you, Bev, for sharing your experience. So often we use Scripture like a band aid — or even worse, as punctuation to end the sentence, when what people really need is just to share what’s breaking their heart.


  9. Working with people in recovery we often feel surrrounded by the many forms of grief yet still I feel at a loss. I’ve learned much from my personal grief and fear And found myself nodding in consent with the words of Nancy. What a helpful resource for all of us. Especially the section on what not to say. Thanks for sharing this Michele.


    1. Yes, that section on what NOT to say was particularly good — also her exhortation to be careful about not trying to get our own needs met by ministering to others. So insightful!


  10. I’m putting this on my TBR list. I’ve enjoyed others of Nancy’s books and have seen a couple of quotes from this one, but hadn’t read it yet. I like that she shares the positive things we can do as well as the negative things that aren’t helpful.


  11. Wow, Michele, that looks like an excellent book. Thank you for sharing your review. So often we want to help, and just don’t know what to say or do. I find it simplest to say what’s on my heart, and that’s, “I’m so sorry.” My heart breaks for families who’ve lost a child. — Thanks for sharing, and for linking up with #ChasingCommunity today! xoxo


    1. Me, too, Brenda, and I think if we just admit that we don’t know what to say, that this is better than trying to be profound and communicating how little we really understand about broken hearts in the process.


  12. Thank you so much for sharing this resource! Grief is hard, on both ends. And often both sides are trying to scramble through the unknown. This is an amazing and enlightening post full of wisdom. Thank you!


  13. “Don’t feel the need to be a fixer.” That’s a big one right there! I’ve found our quiet, listening presence is the best thing we can give a friend in grief. Great review, Michele!


  14. This is deep! I’m grateful I am reading this, Michelle. Thankfully less words are better…Because I really don’t what to say to relieve or offer comfort in many cases. Sometimes simply listening helps rather than trying to shut them out of their emotions. I hope that makes sense?
    Hugs friend


  15. This is great, Michele. It’s so easy to say or do exactly the wrong thing while trying to help someone in grief.

    It applies to combat-induced PTSD as well, I think. I’m beginning to think of PTSD as a kind of grief, the severing of purpose, and to put it bluntly, the knowledge that “you’ll never be that awesome again”. Civilian life really offers little to the combat veteran; the immediacy of death lends a flavour to life, and to one’s soul, that simply can’t be matched. There are those who counsel extreme sports, but that’s just risk for its own sake; the sense of mission is lacking.


  16. This looks like a book we all need to have on our shelves, Michele. I honestly feel like whatever I say is going to be wrong and never know just what to do to be a help. I want to fix it, but there are some things that can’t ever be fixed. One of my dearest friend lost her mother just before Thanksgiving this year. When I asked what I could do, she said…. just be near me. Sometimes, we just need someone to be near as we grieve.
    What a valuable resource to own. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Oh, I know that feeling so well, and I do feel as if reading Nancy Guthrie’s shared wisdom has given me a bit more courage, as well as permission to just be silent if that seems like the best thing to do.


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