Silence Please

When grief is suffocating someone you love, what do you do?  That moment when you witness someone's life come to a screeching halt, forever changing them, what do you say?

Sometimes it's easier to cower away because of fear of screwing up and saying the wrong thing, but you can't just walk away. So what do you do?

Confession time. Back when I was green, I mean a clueless hospice newbie who thought she had a clue, I made a lot of mistakes. Words meant to comfort came across all wrong. I never intentionally minimized someone's pain, but I'm afraid my attempts to reassure did just that.

The sad reality is we can't rescue the grieving. Trying to say or do the right thing to make the person feel better is wasted effort. Those who mourn need time to work through the pain, but being a bystander to the process is uncomfortable. As Americans we shun pain. We avoid it at all costs. So it's no wonder we fail when it comes to supporting those who are in the throes of grief.

From my experience, here's the top three things people say at the time of death  but shouldn't. There's always an exception, but for the most part, these are not helpful.
  1. Don't bring God into it or quote Scripture. Gasp. There may come a time, once grief has settled, when there can be a conversation about God's peace, comfort and sovereignty, but when one is in shock or deeply anguished, the words come across as trite. So keep religion out of it when the pain is raw.
  2. Don't try to frame things in a positive way. I'm the queen of positive reframing, so this one is tough for me. Yes, he may be in a better place. Yes, the suffering is over... But it may not be time for these reassuring words. There will be days and weeks following when these affirmations may bring peace but perhaps not now.
  3. Don't say, “Let me know if you need anything.”  Haven't we all done it? And sincerely meant it. But how often does that person call? It's hard for the grief-stricken to breathe, let alone anticipate their needs. Picking up the phone and asking for something? How is that possible when they are under the sheets weeping?
So what can we do?
  1. Be fully present without words. Simply hold their hand or wrap them in your arms. No advice. No words of wisdom. Just be present.
  2. If you just can't stand it and must say something, keep it simple. "I'm so sorry this happened" or "I'm here" is all that's needed.
  3. Offer concrete ways to help. Anticipate their needs. Don't expect them to know. “I'm going to pick your children up from school tomorrow.” “I will bring dinner tonight.” Ease their stress by doing the practical things that must be done without being asked.

    Above all, be honest. Be real. Be transparent. It's okay to say you don't know what to say or do. After twenty years of hospice care, do you want to know the words I say most often?
“I'm so sorry. I wish I knew what to say, but there are no words.”
That's it. No magic formula. No struggle to find wise words to comfort. No perfect verse to bring healing. Not now. Not in the midst of raw emotion. The best gift to offer the grief-stricken is to simply bear witness. Sit in silence as they weep. Hold their hand. Offer your shoulder. But do so without meaningless words. Never be afraid to simply offer your presence.


  1. The Jewish faith has a tradition of "sitting shiva". It is a beautiful consolation of mourning where the cues are taken from the person grieving. If they want to cry... you cry with them. If they wish to eat... you eat with them. And on it goes.

    The cues you share are so simple and yet profound.

    Grief and mourning are very personal and very different person to person.

    Oh... and if there is a houseful of family who come to mourn, something as simple and practical as bath tissue can also be offered as well and filling the tank, cleaning, detailing and washing a vehicle.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Tamara. We Americans can learn a lot from sitting shiva. Your suggestions are awesome.

  2. So true. When I served as a volunteer hospital chaplain, I often had to take new volunteers through the ropes. When they'd say "I don't know what to say", I'd reply, Good. Don't!"
    When Job's three friends came to comfort him, they sat with him in silence for a week. When they opened their mouths his suffering grew worse.
    Thanks for a great post.

  3. Bill, Thanks for reminding e of Job. At least his friends did stay quiet for a week, so many of us can't hold our tongue for an hour. :)