Q: #259. What can I say to a family whose non-Christian loved one has died?
A: This can be a very difficult thing for some Christians, but in all honesty, I am not sure that you should treat a non-Christian much differently than a Christian at this time. Let me first admit that I am not an expert at all on this, and at this point in my life, I have been blessed that I have not had to go to a lot of funerals. So, I sought out advice from others and will share what I feel is the best.
The reason I said what I said above is because I don’t think common Christian phrases really help a Christian who is grieving feel much better. For example, “She is in a better place now,” or “You will see her again one day,” or “At least she isn’t suffering now.” Of course, these are all true, but does saying them really help? It is my opinion that the Christian already knows these things about their loved one. (Please don’t say, “God needed another angel,” dead people are not angels.) In addition, we should avoid trying to “encourage” people (people don’t really want encouragement at this time) or rationalizing/explaining why this happened.
What we DO want to do is say or do something that will be meaningful to them. This being said, I believe the following ideas will be equally meaningful to the Christian OR non-Christian who has lost a loved one.
1. Simply saying, “I’m sorry!” I read a quote a while back that was attributed to Barbara Johnson which said, “When grief is the freshest, words should be fewest.” Sometimes, just saying “I’m sorry” can be the best thing. In this vain, two more things you can say are: “I love you” and “I am praying for you.” (If the family isn’t Christian, you may not want to say you are praying for them, as they could be offended at a time when you should not be offending, but in my experience most non- Christians do not seem offended when you say this because many do at least believe in some kind of a “higher power.”)
2. Listen. I think perhaps this is often the most helpful. Most grieving people need someone to talk to, to unburden on, to talk about what happened, to care what they have to say. Be that person. Be willing to listen for as long as they need to talk. Keep YOUR words to a minimum. Don’t be afraid of long periods of silence. Sometimes just having you sitting there with them can help a lot.
3. Share a story. I think every grieving person wants to know that their loved one will be remembered positively. Share with them a story or two about how their loved one affected you in a positive way. Something they did that you will always remember. In its own way, this kind of makes the person “immortal.” I think this can be especially important for non-Christians who grieve because in essence, they believe that the life they live here is all there is, so if their loved one did something meaningful on Earth that will be remembered, it means they will kind of “live on.” (Of course, as Christians we know ALL people WILL live on in one of two places: Heaven or Hell.)
4. Do something. Of course, when a person is grieving, they often have little energy to do anything. However, there may also be some things they are not used to doing. There could be things he/she has never done or are physically unable to do. (The one who died may have always done it.) Helping with these things is AWESOME! Many people (often ladies) will cook meals or bake something for the grieving person(s). You can help with such things as mowing the lawn or raking leaves, cleaning the house, watching the children, running errands, grocery shopping, washing the car, etc… (Some suggest it is a good idea to just say, “I will mow your lawn every Thursday.” rather than ask the general question, “What do you need me to do.” In other words, just find something that needs to be done, and do it.)
5. Make a gift. If you have a good picture of the loved one, put it in a nice frame and give it to the family. Some people make a scrapbook filled with pictures, memories, and momentos. I can guarantee you these will be around decades later!
I would also tell you this: do not stop doing these things a week or two later. The grieving process does not end for a long time, but the support often ends quickly. Most people need support months later (maybe even a year or more). This could very well be the most appreciated help of all.
** On a personal note, several non-Christians have died that I have known personally (mainly from work), and when this happens, I try to remember just how important it is that we as Christians share the Gospel with those around us. It always reminds me I need to do a better job…