I have found that at the moment of death, it is my quiet, helpful presence that is needed most, not my words. As a local church shepherd, I will have the privilege of taking many opportunities in the months and years ahead to provide ongoing comfort.
One appropriate means is to use carefully selected sympathy cards. Avoid the use of generic cards that have no solid Christian message. Also, when the spiritual condition of the deceased is unknown, avoid sympathy cards that unquestionably usher the deceased into heaven. False hope provides no real, lasting comfort.
Since my mother’s death, I have radically altered my use of sympathy cards, especially with regard to the words I write in them. I now know more fully the pain that death immediately brings into our lives, and after having received so many impactful words of comfort from others, I am convinced I will never write in a card the same way I did before. Carefully chosen words delivered God’s compassion to our hearts in the days and weeks immediately following our loss.
Years later, these written expressions of love and care still minister to me. From these cards, I have drawn four characteristics of a good sympathy card. You might even consider them “gifts” that we give to those who are grieving. I offer them to you, along with examples of what other people wrote to my family, as suggestions to apply in order to become a more effective minister of comfort to those who grieve (2 Corinthians 1:4).
1. PERMISSION: Give them permission to grieve or be shocked. Use words that communicate freedom to experience and release pain, such as:
The pain of your loss is greater when your heart has been touched deeply and your life affected more profoundly by the one you have loved.
We are never prepared for the loss of a loved one, but God’s grace and mercy are new every morning. He is faithful in times of grief and he, using both his Word and his children, will strengthen you in the days ahead.
2. HONESTY: If you don’t know what to say, admit it. Don’t feel pressured to come up with some profound words that don’t represent the real you. Include brief Scripture quotations of comfort. Remember, the one thing Job’s “comforters” did right is to sit with him for a week without saying a word (Job 2:13). Your unspoken presence will mean the world to those who grieve.
If we knew what to say, we would not know how to say it. We are asking God to give grace running over as you and your family deal with this difficult hour.
3. EMPATHY: Show them you understand without actually saying, “I understand what you are going through.” For example, one man wrote these words:
I was deeply saddened to hear of your mother’s death. I lost my own mother in a similarly unexpected way, and I well remember the sense of shock. I pray the comfort of the Spirit of Christ will be with you and your family, especially your little ones who will be without their grandmother at Christmas.
4. ASSISTANCE: Open your ears to listen to them, and your heart to serve them.
If you do offer to help the grieving person in practical ways, be sure to specifically follow up with them later. Overwhelmed with grief and the common tendency to pull into the turtle’s shell, so to speak, they probably will not call you. But if you call them and say, “Let’s get a cup of coffee,” they may be glad to accept. And when you go, be ready to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
by Paul Tautges, adapted from Comfort the Grieving: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss
How to Use This Book
Grief is messy. But it’s an opportunity for profound ministry, and can be a fruitful season for a pastor’s own personal growth. Share this book with a pastor who needs a thoroughly biblical (but immensely practical) guide to comforting the grieving. The book will show you how to encourage the hearts and minds of the bereaved with the hope of the Gospel.