Some of the most awkward social interactions happen at funerals. What do you say? How can you make the grieving feel better? We all want to be the person who says the perfect thing. On the flip side, we don’t want to be the person who says the wrong thing. Trying to find the right words or actions to console someone who’s lost a loved one seems so elusive.
Or maybe you know what it’s like to be the mourner. You’ve cringed at the sappy, pseudo-spiritual jargon someone has tried to comfort you with. You’ve noticed how people try to avoid you because of the awkwardness caused by grief. You just wish they’d be there for you and know how to comfort you well.
Nancy Guthrie has written a timely book to help us to do just that. What Grieving People Wish You Knew: About What Really Helps (And What Really Hurts) is the book all of us—especially Christians—need to read in order to best help those in our lives who’ve lost someone to death. We all know someone struggling with grief over the death of a loved one, and we all know what it’s like to want to help but not know what to say or do. Thankfully, Guthrie weaves personal testimonies of what really helps and hurts into this practical book.
Aiming to Help
Guthrie—a Bible teacher who with her husband, David, cohost the GriefShare video series—recounts how she used to be among the ignorant when it came to consoling grieving friends, until death struck her own family (11). She and David lost two children to a rare genetic disease soon after both of their births.
Guthrie was on the receiving end of both helpful and hurtful—though all well-meaning—family members and friends who wanted to console her. She then realized the need to develop some type of resource that would aid those who sought to comfort mourners. She writes in the introduction:
I wonder why I ever let the temporary awkwardness rob me of the joy and satisfaction of blessing someone in such a significant way during such a difficult time. I hope you feel that way too and that you’ll find ideas and encouragement in the pages that follow. I hope you will be emboldened to engage instead of avoid the grieving people who are all around you and are waiting for someone to interact with them about the loss of their loved one. Along with courage to engage, most of us need some wisdom in regard to what meaningful engagement with grieving people looks and sounds like. (17)
And that’s the purpose of the book: to help us know how to engage the grieving in a helpful rather than hurtful way. One doesn’t need a counseling background or an advanced education in order to understand and apply the principles Guthrie offers.
And while this is a great resource for anyone desiring to know how to be there for grieving friends, the intended audience is those who call themselves Christians, with the emphasis on pointing the grieving to the hope they have in Christ (154), and with one chapter dedicated to talking about heaven and hell with theological accuracy rather than mushy sentimentality.
While Guthrie clearly writes from a biblical worldview, she doesn’t consult Scripture until the chapter on heaven and hell. This is a vital topic to cover, as there are many misunderstandings and misconceptions about what heaven is like and what happens after people die. She rightly uses Scripture as the standard when addressing these false beliefs, reminding us of the disembodied state after death, the glory of being in the presence of Jesus, and the truth that we don’t morph into angels after we die. Yet I wonder why Guthrie didn’t weave more Scripture throughout her book to serve her other theological assertions, such as God’s sovereignty over death (45–46).
The majority of What Grieving People Wish You Knew is practically driven, however, with emphasis on the words and actions most helpful and encouraging to the grieving. These are contrasted with words and actions that are not helpful and can actually be hurtful to mourners, further adding to their grief. Guthrie emphasizes that it matters less what we say than that we say something (20), and that there’s nothing we can say to make another’s loss hurt less—which takes the pressure off us as the comforters (23). Our goal in speaking isn’t to remove the pain or grief, but to enter into the grievers’ pain and assure them they’re not alone (23).
Guthrie not only outlines the dos and don’ts of speaking, but she also provides usable guidelines on specific words and actions that have proven beneficial to mourners. Since we live in such a technological age, she includes a chapter on how to use social media properly to reach out to the grieving. Among the vast array of helpful insights on comforting the grieving, four principles reoccur throughout the book:
- Just show up.
- Listen more than talk.
- Earn a right to be heard.
- Don’t assume anything.
These guidelines aren’t just for the immediate aftermath of the death, but for the weeks, months, and even years following. Guthrie reminds the reader that grief is a long process and that the grieving will always sense the loss in one way or another, no matter how much time has passed (22, 56).
I was excited when I heard about What Grieving People Wish You Knew, since it’s a much-needed resource in our churches. Guthrie didn’t disappoint. Having experienced loss several times in recent years, I could relate to so much of the content. But even though I’ve been through grief, I still say and do the taboo things Guthrie warns against. I now feel more equipped to minister to those grieving in my life. One of the most helpful resources is the final chapter, which covers common questions ranging from depression to anger toward God. It even includes some of the Scripture passages mourners say have been most meaningful in their grief.
For Christians who want to learn how to better serve and love those in their community who are grieving, Guthrie’s book is an insightful resource. She not only provides needed guidelines, but she also gives us an insider’s look into the heart and mind of those walking through the trenches of sadness.
I commend What Grieving People Wish You Knew to every believer, especially those in leadership positions. Applying the truths and principles outlined in the book will further equip us to selflessly love like Jesus, and to mourn with those who mourn.