Stump the Rector – What do you say when someone dies?


My sister-in-law’s father passed yesterday, after a long battle with cancer. I sat down to write a condolence card, but am having trouble with wording. I’ve been blessed that both of my parents are still alive, so I haven’t dealt with the death of a parent. What I feel is that I’m so sorry that she doesn’t have her dad on earth with her anymore, but I’m relieved that he’s in a MUCH better place and not suffering horribly any longer. How do I say that in a kind, loving way? What is an appropriate thing to say to someone who is grieving with the loss of a close family member?

First I commend you for not rushing in with a greeting card kind of response because that can do more damage than good. People don’t need to hear “God needed another angel.” Besides being terrible theology, that does not help. They also don’t want to hear, “He’s in a better place.” They know that already and so it comes across as insulting, even though we did not mean it that way.

Second, let’s get the setting correct. A friend or family member is in mourning, and that truth is that mourning makes the rest of us uncomfortable. Therefore we must remind ourselves that this is not about our comfort level but it is about their grieving. Mourning is God’s way of bringing about eventual healing and so we short-circuit God’s healing process if we try to help them “turn their lemon into lemonade.” They don’t want lemonade right now. They want to weep and they need us to weep with them.

The Bible says that there is a time and season for everything under heaven. If it is time to mourn then it is time to mourn. A professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary told us of a friend who was a missionary that was back in the States raising support. While doing so his son was killed in a car accident. Rather than mourning the family took the position of, “Praise the Lord, he is with Jesus now.” Within the year the daughter committed suicide and the wife was hospitalized due to an emotional breakdown. If Jesus can weep at Lazarus’ tomb, even while knowing that He will soon raise Him from the dead, then it is not unspiritual of us to mourn.

Thus one of the best things we can do with those who mourn, is to assure them that they are not alone. Sometimes, often times, we don’t really need to say anything. What can we say? Instead we offer them the “ministry of presence” and we weep along with them. A hug and a simple “I am so, so sorry” goes a long way.

When writing a note, recognize their loss. This validates their mourning. Second refer to the hope that we have in the resurrection. Third assure them of your prayers for the Holy Comforter to come along side and bring them peace. Keep it simple and sweet. They are not in the mood for an epistle.

We all say “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.” We mean it but they won’t call. So it is also helpful to follow up in a few days with a call. This once again assures them that they are not alone.

You are being not only a good family member but you are also being Christ-like to want to care for those who are hurting. Ask Him to use you and His love will guide you as you minister to them.

1 thought on “Stump the Rector – What do you say when someone dies?

  1. As being someone who lost a brother and both parents recently, I agree with Father Ray’s words. If I heard one more person say “They’re in a better place”, well Fr. Ray said it all. Just look at Job. He just needed his friends to mourn not preach at him…..

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