by Rev. Peter Stimpson
QUESTION: My wife died recently, and I was struck by how many dumb comments were made to me, like "It's God's Will." Could you write an article to help people know what not to say when bad times hit?
ANSWER: When a person dies, people are not sure what to say, and often rely on trite phrases that they hope will plug the hole of their anxiety. As the focus needs to be on the person whom they are trying to comfort rather than themselves, they hurt instead of help, and so need to learn what not to say. Here are a few examples of what I mean.
It's God's Will: Does it make sense that a God who loves you would want to hurt you? While the purpose of life is not to live forever, God creating a finite and temporal world that eventually ends in death, that does not mean that a conniving God plays with our lives like Zeus atop Mount Olympus, throwing troubles in our way to see what we shall do. Instead of giving a theology lesson, why not ask if the person would be comforted to have their priest, minister, or rabbi visit them?
Death was a Blessing: To whom? If you mean that the person died quickly instead of enduring a slow, lingering death, while that may be true, it does not remove the fact that a parent or spouse is now dead. Instead of trying to make something bad good, why not tell your friend how sad you are for them?
I know how you feel: Really? Even if you ooze of empathy, you do not really know how anybody else feels. Why not simply ask them how they are feeling, and then just listen. This is about them, not you.
You're Young and Can Remarry: Maybe so, but that does not remove the present pain, and unwittingly implies that the other person can be replaced. To remarry is to begin with a new person, not to erase the old one from memory.
Call me if I can help: But will they? Have you thought that maybe the other person does not want to impose on you? Instead of waiting for a call, why not call yourself, offering some specific help, like cooking a meal, washing laundry, mowing their lawn, walking their dog, et cetera.
I'll be praying for you: On the surface, this sounds good, but often is a way of pushing the other away with pious platitudes, perhaps due to your own fear of facing your mortality. Faith without charity is empty, so why not offer some concrete help like I just mentioned, or call to come back and pray with the other person, not just for them.
A final comment is that when I was a young priest, I worried about what to say when visiting someone who was ill or dying, hoping to come up with just the right thought or prayer. But age has taught me that my caring presence was more important than any pearls of wisdom. So, do not sell short the value of just being there for someone, offering not a quick duty visit, but one that shows how much you really care.