What Is the Hardest Question for Those Who Are Grieving?

It’s a normal question. It’s a question you ask without even thinking about it. In fact, it’s become a kind of greeting. It’s the seemingly simple question:

“How are you doing?”

Of course, the normal answer is “Fine.” It’s the standard counter-greeting. You’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Hey, how are you?” 

“Fine. How are you?”

But the easiest question to answer becomes the hardest question to answer when you are in the process of grieving for a loved one who has died.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/AntonioGuillem

When You Aren’t Fine

As much as you’d like to give a short and simple answer like “Fine,” you just can’t do that when you’ve recently lost someone close to you. Answering “Fine” would be like a betrayal to the one you are missing. And it’s untruthful too. You certainly aren’t fine. 

On the other hand, to answer truthfully and say “Not very well” leaves you vulnerable to explaining your feelings and might make the other person feel awkward for asking. It can potentially lead to a fresh flood of grief and heartache that—to be honest—can be exhausting to go through again. 

Want to know how grieving people are doing? Terrible, that’s how. They are missing their loved one badly. They are immensely sad. 

That isn’t all they are feeling, of course. I know because I’ve been there. We who have lost a loved one have moments of peace, even joy, but more moments of sorrow. We are suffering, yet learning. Grieving, yet rejoicing. Mourning, and occasionally laughing. But a good part of the time, we are sad.

It hits us really hard when we are not expecting it. Little landmines we step on, filled with memories. So, if you happen to catch us at such a moment and ask, “How are you doing?” you may not like what you see and hear.

God Is with Us

But know this—God is with us. There is even a blessedness in mourning. Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” But mourning includes deep sadness, tears, and pain. There will always be a hole in the life of a person who has lost a loved one.

The Bible says there is “a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance…A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:4,7 NLT).

After Stephen was martyred, some godly people came and buried Stephen with loud weeping (see Acts 8:2). There is a lot of weeping when a loved one has died, especially if it was unexpected. You will never “get over it.”

When a person has been a part of your life, like our son Christopher was for me and my wife for 33 years, you don’t just edit them out of the script and pretend that life is normal. You notice that empty chair at the table. You see something that they would have liked, and it reminds you they are gone. You forget for a moment that you can’t just pick up the phone to call or text them. 

They are still so much a part of you, yet they are just gone. That is very hard to cope with.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

Sometimes when we don’t know what to say, we say the wrong thing. It’s better to be silent than to cause someone more pain or annoyance. 

After my son went to Heaven, there were a handful of people who said some pretty stupid things to me. I’m sure their intentions were good, but when you are mourning, you are vulnerable. The armor is down, and you are sensitive to what people say to you. You can easily be hurt because your feelings are so raw.

To avoid causing someone further grief, let me give you some guidelines about what not to say to someone who has just lost a loved one:

Don’t compare their pain with your own.

- “I know just how you feel.”

- “My grandmother died too, so I understand.”

Don’t rush to the end of the grief process.

- “You’ll get over this soon.”

- “Time heals all wounds.”

Don’t try to explain God’s actions.

- “God always picks the prettiest flowers first.”

- “God must have needed to have her close to Him.”

Don’t substitute.

- “Let’s be thankful you still have other children.”

- “It must be a comfort to you that your other grandfather is still living.”

Don’t theologize.

- “All things work together for good; God will bring good from this.”

- “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

Don’t be fatalistic.

- “It must have been his time to go.”

- “This was obviously God’s will.” 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages SeventyFour

A Better Thing to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all, but just to be present. Tears are a normal and proper response in times of mourning. It is good to weep with those who have experienced loss.

The same sensitivity of feeling that causes annoyance when someone says something wrong works the other way too. It is attentive to encouraging and uplifting words. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11 ESV). Your words can be profoundly helpful and healing. 

Here are some principles to keep in mind when someone is grieving a loved one: 

Keep it simple.

- “There are no words to say.”

- “I’m so sorry.”

- “I love you!”

Let them know they are not alone.

- “Thinking of you today.”

- “We’ve been praying for you, and will continue to pray.”

Tell them you’ll be there for them.

- “If there’s anything I can do, no matter how small, I want to help.”

- “If you ever want to talk, day or night, please call me.”

Offer hope.

- “I look forward to being with her again.”

- “He’s a bigger part of your future than he was of your past.”

Don’t avoid talking about their loved one.

- “He was such a good husband and father.”

- “I always admired how sweet and kind and forgiving she was.”

Reminisce.

- “I remember a time when just she and I got to talk about...”

- “I’ll never forget the day he pulled that funny prank on me...” 

Mourn with Those Who Mourn

The person may want to talk about it, and if they do, listen; don’t talk. Job’s counselors had that right in the beginning. It’s when they started talking that the problems began.

I don’t want to frighten you into complete silence. Just be aware of your words. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you His words. Instead of asking, “How are you doing?” maybe you’re better off just saying, “I am sorry for your loss, and I am praying for you.” Or smile and say, “Love you!”

You might be afraid the person will cry if you mention their loved one. But they might resent it if you don’t. Crying is not necessarily a bad thing. There can be tears of joy.

You need to know that when people are grieving, they are “not themselves.” They may react in strange ways. That’s okay, too.

Please be patient with mourning people. Give them time. And don’t forget to keep praying for them. 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Motortion


Pastor Greg Laurie serves as the senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, which has campuses in Southern California and Hawaii. He is the author of more than 70 books, hosts the nationally syndicated radio broadcast A New Beginning, and is the founder of Harvest Crusades, large-scale evangelistic events attended by millions of individuals worldwide. Learn more at Harvest.org.

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