Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 2, Religion

If you know me in person (or through my writing) I hope you’ll find this post title disconcerting. I hope you’ll think it seems downright odd for me to discourage would-be comforters from referring to religion as they console the bereaved, because I hope I’ve conveyed (in clear, though never in-your-face ways) how integral religion is to who I am.*

So in part 2 of Taboo Topics**, WHY in the heck do I insist you should not invoke religious topics when speaking to the bereaved?

Too many people spurt inconsiderate spiritual platitudes at mourners, reaching for the first handy sayings that come to mind.

Spraying spiritual platitudes on the bereaved is as effective in helping them as when inexperienced cooks spray water on grease fires — flames spread, burning a larger area.

Consider these brimstone-scattering thoughts as you approach your grieving friends:

  • Not all family members have the same religious views or attitudes. What offers comfort to one may deeply wound (or even offend) another.
  • Unresolved familial disagreements about faith-related matters may leave the bereaved feeling anxious or guilty. Pointing out those differences does not help.
  • No one fully knows any heart or soul but their own. Assumptions about the deceased’s “heavenward” status can cause mourners more pain than condolence.
    • Sometimes “outsiders” (even within a family) aren’t privy to all the circumstances of the departed one’s life (or death, or both). The deceased may have lived a praiseworthy public facade but presented an altogether different reality behind closed doors.Grief can be complicated for these survivors.
    • In cases where the deceased secretly (or openly) abused family members, feelings of relief may overshadow (or battle alongside) grief.
  • Survivors of suicide face offensive outbursts from people whose words can’t possibly be intended to console (“Suicide’s a sin, so your loved one’s going to hell”). Survivors also hear too many insensitive assumptions by those who may mean to console but who instead inflict more injury (“Don’t worry. God will forgive your loved one”). Never assume you know what prompted the suicide, and never make spiritual assumptions about it or about the survivors.
  • Avoid using these religious platitudes (and others like them):
    • “She’s gone home to God.”
    • “He’s in a better place.”
    • “You just have to trust in God’s will.”
    • “God needed him more than you do.”
    • “It was her time.”
    • “You’ll see him again.”
    • “It won’t be long before you see her again.”
    • “Heaven needed another angel.”
    • “Now you’ve got an angel in heaven watching over you.”

Remember, I’m not anti-religion. On the contrary. My faith has remained the one constant, the one source of comfort and sanity and security when the box of my life felt soaked in mud, ripped open, overturned, shaken out, and run over. Often I agreed with the sentiments of the platitudes (that he was in a better place, that I did trust in God’s will, that I knew I’d see him again…).

However, hearing them thrust upon me did not help. It felt like the people who said them wanted to cover up or erase my pain, as if it were a thing to be lightly brushed aside. What I needed was to have my loss acknowledged.

If you have an already established pastoral relationship with the bereaved, it may (as in it might possibly, but it might not necessarily) be appropriate to offer spiritual counsel, scriptural comfort, or doctrinal comments. But before you preach at your congregant, listen.

For everyone else who wishes to console a grieving friend, don’t bring religion into your condolences unless your grieving friend first invites you into the topic.

As in all aspects of grieving, LISTEN to the bereaved and follow their lead. IF your grieving friends express an interest in speaking of spiritual matters, by all means share your thoughts, but do so carefully and from your heart, not from the first trite words that come to mind.

___

*I don’t say this to be preachy but to acknowledge the core of my survival during the most difficult part of my life. My reliance on God’s unwavering love and my faith in His absolute awareness of me (and my grieving children) is what kept me going when my soul was flayed raw with grief.

___

**I talk about other taboo topics — politics, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in other posts.

6 thoughts on “Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 2, Religion

  1. THIS is excellent, Teresa!!! Especially this part: “No one fully knows any heart or soul but their own. Assumptions about the deceased’s “heavenward” status can cause mourners more pain than condolence.” My grief over my father’s death in January has been multiplied because I don’t know what his beliefs were about the Lord and his, as you put it ,”heavenward” status.

    Sharing this one. Thanks for writing it.

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    • Thank you, Shelby. Grieving is hard enough under the best circumstances (and really, are there ever any “best” circumstances for losing someone you love?), but most of us grapple with complicated nuances of our relationships.

      I’ll be thinking of you as the holiday season approaches with the anniversary of his death looming at the beginning of the new year.

      Like

  2. Marilyn Bennion

    This is really well said Teresa. When I lost my husband one of the things that I found most difficult was the frequent comments that went along the lines of, “Aren’t you thankful you know God’s plan and will see him again?” It was like someone rubbing salt in an open wound. Even though I was a believer I felt those comments diminished my own feelings of grief and loss and certainly did not provide the comfort that was intended.

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    • Oh, Marilyn, I heard similar comments. I’m sorry for how much hearing them intensified your pain. I’m sure the speakers meant well (for both of us), but that didn’t make their words any more comforting.

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  3. PullenOutheStops

    Another dead-on post. Platitudes are usually offered not to bring relief to the grieving, but rather to everyone else who feels obliged to say SOMETHING. Take Teresa’s advice–stay off these topics. And if you find yourself compelled to air one of those forbidden phrases, do everyone a favor–stand by the hors d’oeuvres table and stuff your face. It’ll keep your mouth safely occupied.

    Like

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