Things Not to Say to a Hurting Friend

Originally published Tuesday, 23 February 2016.

Confession: I often watch sappy shows on TV like those on the Hallmark Channel. One thing I notice is that every time a character has a struggle in their life, their friend or family member says some sort of useless platitude like, “This will work out, things will get better. You’ll see.” These kinds of phrases remind me of the song from one of my favorite childhood movies, Annie: “when I’m stuck with a day that’s grey and lonely, I’ll stick up my chin and grin and say…the sun will come out tomorrow.” This song is similar to the 1980’s classic, “Don’t worry be happy.”

Such phrases sound nice. They make us feel helpful in saying them. They even come from good intentions. But in truth, they hold little meaning. Christians have their platitudes as well, those things we say to hurting friends and family members. Perhaps you've heard them. “God will turn this out for your good” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” “You should rejoice in your suffering” "Your loved one is in a better place now" "This too shall pass." Our platitudes can come from truth but are often misplaced and misused.

Why are such platitudes wrong to say? Ed Welch says that such platitudes circumvent our compassion (Side by Side, p.105). Sometimes, even if a statement comes from Scripture, such as “God will use this for your good” it’s not the time to say it. When someone has just experienced a severe loss, we need to be sensitive to them. When a wound is fresh, we don’t want to add more pain to it. Even something that is true like, “you should take joy in your trials” is hurtful when someone has just learned that they have been diagnosed with stage four cancer. There is a time for speaking such Biblical truths but it’s not when the wound is new and raw and fresh. As Proverbs 25:20 says, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” The Bible doesn’t say to rejoice with those who mourn. It says to mourn with those who mourn. 

Saying something like, “everything is going to be okay” is also unkind because it’s not always true. The sun doesn’t always come out tomorrow. Sometimes marriages do fail and end in divorce. People do lose their jobs and homes. The cancer doesn’t always go away and people do die. Sin and the fall are real. Horrible things happen to people. Traumatic things. Things that leave lasting, painful scars. We are not being a good friend when we tell people that everything will be okay.

And when someone has lost someone dear to them, no matter how old they are, or how sick they might have been, it hurts. The grief is real. To say that it is better for their loved one to be dead is unkind. Though it's true that if the loved one was a believer, it is better to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). But let's not forget that death is part of the curse. It came as a result of the fall. Every time someone dies, no matter how old they are, it is a reminder that things are not as they should be. All death should cause us to mourn and grieve because our world is broken and we desperately need Christ to come and make all things new.

So instead of platitudes, let's sit with our hurting friends. Let's cry with them. Let's hold their hand and listen. Let's mourn with them. Let's pray for them. And let us remind them of the One who wept for them, who bled for them, who even now catches their tears, and who will one day dry their tears forever.