Mar 242016 17 Responses

Lies We Tell Others About Death

It’s understandable. When grief is deep and sorrow surrounds us, we want to comfort others. So we lie to them. We don’t mean to lie. But in our attempts to ease the pain of others, we often tell untruths to those who are grieving.

As a pastor, I have one rule at funerals–don’t lie. It’s not an easy rule to keep. It would be far simpler in the moment to make things up, pretend as though the deceased was perfect, and to simply tell people what they want to hear. But I can’t.

I don’t have to tell everything, but I do have to tell the truth. Sadly, others do not hold to the same ideal. On many occasions, I have stood beside a grieving family as well-meaning friends and family have lied straight to their face. (See: Always Attend the Funeral)

Here are six common lies people tell those who are grieving.

Common Lies

1. They are now an angel. No they aren’t. While it sounds like a lovely thought, it isn’t true. The Christian message is not that human beings become angels after we die.

2. God needed them more than we did. No he didn’t. Death is confusing to us all. Especially to people of faith, it is hard to understand why God allows death. However, death is not a response to a need by God. He has no needs.

3. They are in a better place. This is true in some cases, but not nearly as often as I hear it. It’s interesting how many people reject the Christian message in life, but want to quote its promises in death.

4. You’ll be fine. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. “You’ll be fine” is something we say when a child scrapes a knee; it is not something which should be said when a person faces unbearable grief. To use a trite phrase in that moment is unloving.

5. Time will heal. Time does change things, but it doesn’t necessarily heal things. Time gives an opportunity for healing, but healing only happens as we process our emotions, learn coping skills, and do the work necessary to heal. Time itself does very little; working through one’s grief can do a great deal.

6. At least…. (you were there with him, you had her for this long, you had a wife/husband/parent/child, etc). Any statement which begins with “at least” is insensitive. It is minimizing the person’s pain and shouldn’t be said.

Better Truths

Rather than lying to those who are hurting, there are some things we can say which are completely true. These truths may not feel as loving because they recognize rather than denying the person’s pain, but these truths are better than a lie. (See: Death Needs No Judgment)

1. I’m sorry. It’s simple and true. It recognizes the other person’s pain and communicates your sorrow.

2. I love you. This may be the best thing to say in a time of sorrow. It reminds the person of your affection for them even in a time of great pain.

3. I’m bringing you dinner (Or cutting your lawn or babysitting your kids). Actions are often better than words. Instead of asking “is there anything I can do,” tell the person what you are planning on doing. They can always tell you not to, but most of the time they will appreciate the effort.

4. I don’t know what to say. What is more honest than this? I deal with death on a weekly basis and I don’t know what to say. Why do we feel we have to pretend to be knowledgeable about it? We don’t.

Death is difficult. No one is an expert regarding death because we all deal with it in different ways. Don’t feel the pressure to say something perfect when talking with someone who is grieving. Simply live by this rule–don’t lie.

What is another lie you often hear in times of grief?

17 Responses to Lies We Tell Others About Death
  1. Glenda Kuhn Reply

    I was told this when my husband was diagnosed with cancer and given 3-5 years to live, “You’re strong. You can make it fine.” I wasn’t fine and I did not feel very strong then and I would be weaker if he died.

  2. Miranda Reply

    We can’t understand it, but it is God’s Will… I lost my second baby at just 3 days old. I have deep faith, and I know these well-meaning people do not know what else to say. I understand we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people. God doesn’t promise that we will never face trials, He promises He will be with us through them. God’s Will is never that a mother will lose her child, that a son will lose his father or that a husband will lose his wife. His gift to us is free will to choose Him always. I believe God weeps with me, His heart breaks with mine, because He loves us so much, He sacrificed His son to take away the suffering and sin of the world if we accept His love!

  3. Beka Reply

    Thanks for sharing this!

    I always get so annoyed when people say “An angel is now watching us” or when a butterfly comes and someone says “there is so and so”. It’s bizarre to me!

  4. Keith Reply

    I am struck that sometimes non Christians can seem to have a more appropriate stance at times. I was watching a documentary on the rock band RUSH and Geddy Lee was talking about the two rapidly successive deaths in the life of drummer Neil Peart. I am paraphrasing but he said something like: “I didn’t know what to say to my friend so I just sat there with him… I mean the last thing you want to do is say something stupid just to make yourself feel better.”

  5. Jenny Akins Reply

    We grieve with hope, not like those with no hope. Of course only say this truth to a professing Christian.

  6. Tracy Reply

    How about, “I understand how you feel”?

  7. […] All of this has created a generation ignorant of death. Nowhere is that ignorance more apparent than... kevinathompson.com/children-death-learning-grieve
  8. D'Annette Wright Reply

    The hardest thing for me was when people said, “How are you?” I had to process quickly, “Did they really want to know? What part of how I am would be appropriate to share with this person?” or I wanted to say,”How do you think I am, my husband just died?” or if I was at work and my mind was at the moment focused on work and I said “Ok” was that a betrayal? or if it was an unbeliever and I said Ok and didn’t go on to share that it was only because of God’s peace and strength and go on to share the gospel, was that wasting an opportunity?

  9. Melinda Reply

    When both my parents died, in different years, while battling cancer, I was “comforted” by being told that I should be happy because they were no longer suffering. While that statement was true, they were no longer suffering, I just wanted to yell at them about the “happy” part!! No, I wasn’t happy, I wanted my mom and dad here…healthy, being with us, watching my boys grow up, and being “happy” with us!! I know these people meant well, but I will never use that statement when comforting someone who has lost a loved one!

  10. Dianne B Reply

    When I list a baby over 35 years ago, one older lady told me that I was young and soon would have “another” one to replace him. While it was true, I was not comforted at all by that because right then all I wanted was for THAT baby to have survived. I can still hear her words so many years later.

  11. Shelly Reply

    I was told at my father’s funeral (who had committed suicide) that I was brave for being there. My response was, “Well he didn’t give me much of a choice, did he?” I wasn’t brave, I was numb.

  12. Loretta Gilliam Reply

    I get so upset when someone says don’t they look good!!!
    Or
    I understand. No one can understand what your u are going through
    Or
    I know what you are going through my mother,father…died too
    Just be there.

  13. Darlene Reply

    Yeah no one knows how another person feels. How could they? Even if you have had a similiar experience…you only know how you feel.

    Love is so powerful. Be kind and practice love. Its a verb. God bless you.

  14. Ann Reply

    I’m sure he is “up there watching (their fave TV show)” or “He is at that great Fire Station in the sky” (he was a fireman) or “will help their sports team win now”, ETC. as if they have moved to a parallel universe doing everything they did here but have more power. People’s comments can be the worst part of the first week. I do find words helpful when they point out a funny moment they shared with the deceased or a meaningful trait. “Your dad was the most honest man I knew” meant the world to us kids.

  15. Tracy Reply

    “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

  16. Roxanne Clow Reply

    We lost our son to suicide on March 15th. Our friends and family (Christian and non-Christian have been wonderful)! Earlier this year my favorite aunt died. What I desire the most is for each of them to be remembered. I’m comforted because both are with the Lord.

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