What To Do When You Don’t Have Words to Say

Helping People Grieve...

I have done a few too many funerals for children when the parents are still living. Every funeral is difficult, but these are some of the hardest.

One teenager comes to mind. I went to school with his mother and his father is a dear, personal friend. He was supposed to start college the following week, but tragically died in a car accident. He was a well-loved, funny, popular boy and the funeral home was packed with people paying their respects. As you can imagine, there were hundreds of students wrestling to understand why this happened to their friend. The receiving line for the family lasted for numerous hours over a couple of days.

I remember a number of people asking me the same question as they proceeded through the line: “What should I say to the family?”

What can you say to grieving parents, family members and friends at a time like this?

In times like these, there usually are no words, which can fully bring comfort to devastated people in the initial shock of their loss. They are hurting. They are hurting with a pain whose depths most of us can never imagine.

When there aren’t words to say – say nothing if there’s nothing to say – just be there.

Of course, you’ll speak. So, tell them you’re sorry, but don’t try to make explanations. Don’t try to give them a why. Don’t try to have fancy words of wisdom.

Give them a hug – and hold them until they let go.

Cry with them – and assure them you care.

Pray for them – and do this continually after you leave their presence.

When there aren’t words to say – just be a friend.

I’m reminded of the great sufferer Job. When he had lost literally everything he had – his wealth, his family, his health – and the respect of his wife – his friends came. And, they sat with him for seven days and said nothing. 

Sometimes your presence is the greater gift in times where there are no words.

In fact, when someone you love is hurting, the presence of a friend in those initial days of grief may be more valuable than the words of a counselor, or pastor, or any other professional.

Words will come in days to come – and, then you may need the professionals to help you say the right things, but initially, just be present.

When was the last time you were in a situation where there was simply nothing to say? 

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22 thoughts on “What To Do When You Don’t Have Words to Say

  1. our family lost 9 members within two yrs., really less, from lingering illnesses to sudden heart attack and stroke. Makes no difference the how; I met so many famly members we still had but were new to me and people who loved and respected our family. The sharing of eye contact, hugs, food, stories and encouragement last forever. My dad has been gone for almost 21 years, we knew it would happen within a certain frame of time, yet, it was a shock and the numbers of unexpected caring people who came at one time or another was/is overwhelming. Mom's class absolutely took over the kitchen and friends stayed at the house during our needed absences; even the beloved friend with her crutches who answered the phone and house safe. I remember a lot of love and have tried to pass that on in some very heart breaking occasions. God uses us thru every joy or sadness. Thanks for opening this up.

  2. Ron, you gave a great message to all at Jack's funeral. I thought it was special when you mentioned, after listening to the diversity of music played prior to the messages by you and Deacon Azzara, that you "now realized" how many different types of music that he listened to and that he met no stranger, a friend to all regardless of race and class. (What a wise young man). It was a very personal message in a room full of friends and family. Thank you.

  3. Ron, we are headed up to Milwaukee for the funeral of our niece who died last night of a severe stroke after a fall. My sister has endured the death of her husband 10 years ago, and the brain injury of her other daughter 11 years ago. She remains in a nursing home, not knowing anyone or anything. There are NO words to comfort these circumstances! The only thing we have been able to do is exactly what you posted above. Thank you for sharing this for those times when others will need it. There will be a time for every one of us to need this advice. Perhaps it will be comfort to those who stay away because they don't know what to do or say. We don't have to 'say' anything…we just need to 'be'.

    • Thanks Pat. I'm sorry you are going through this pain. Praying for you as your travel and minister to family.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  4. This has been weighing heavy on my heart since I read it in the paper. My brother, who also attended Rossview, passed away in a car wreck almost 4 years ago. My brother was 17 and was going to fast and hit some gravel, over corrected. He hit a tree stump as well. My heart breaks for this family. During that time no words seem to be comforting. Just knowing someone who cared was there meant more than anything.

    • I'm sorry Misty. You're still dealing with that pain. I've learned though, and saw it this week, that those who have a story can better help those with developing stories.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  5. This is a hard situation to be in. I found myself in a similar situation like this two weeks ago. I was visiting a lady in the hospital who was in a diabetic coma and the doctor had just come in and given the family the bad news that she was probably not going to make it. Early in ministry I tried to have something to say but now I just try to be there because sometimes it's best to not say anything. Sometimes people just need our presence and not our words.
    Twitter: ericspeir

  6. It took me way too long to realize that "the perfect words" don't exist and that saying nothing is ok. Thank you for the post. Maybe others will learn faster than I did. My prayers still continue for the loss of this family.

    • The crazy thought after reading your comment, is that with our prayers, we have the ability to find the "perfect words". When we pray God's Spirit intercedes for us the Scripture says. That's so much better than anything we could say.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  7. It all happened last year. When my friend lost his dad out of prolonged illness (at the age of 48) , I was not able to say anything to console him. My friend's sorrow was immense. I can never forget that situation.

  8. Ron, Seven years ago this coming November we lost our only daughter in a car accident. I can tell you that I remember next to nothing that was said to me on that night or in the days that followed. But I can tell you who came and sat with us, who held our hands, who let us ask the inevitable questions but never attempted to give us answers and who cleaned our house and fixed meals. I remember who was just there for us, not what was said.

    So from one who has traveled this path – just be there.

    • Wow! I'm sorry for your loss. I know it's still tender. Someone once told me it takes 10 years to even feel normal after the loss of a child. I'm sure you have helped so many from your pain.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  9. Thanks for the words of wisdom. Sorry to hear of the loss. After losing our 22yr old nephew to a car accident almost 3 years ago, your list is priceless. Just showing up is what counts. Words will often get in the way when there really aren't any words for the situation.

  10. I've never had to officiate a funeral before. But I do get sought out to counsel or for advice as a pastor. I never lead with any cliche because you are right, sometimes there just aren't words to say.

    Just being a friend and listening can be so important sometimes.