Gratitude and peace swelled in my heart as I read through the many messages responding to my Facebook post about my daughter who was in the NICU for an unforeseen brain injury at birth. People’s cards and messages had a way of lifting my spirit; their love, articulated in various ways, meant a lot to me.
Now, several months later, a few experiences have caused me to reflect back on what people said to me during that time: my friend’s mom passed away unexpectedly and my cousin lost her unborn baby after a car crash. In both situations, I wanted to say something meaningful, knowing how much people’s words carried me through some dark days in the NICU.
When others are going through tough times and we want to express sympathy, we often feel at a loss for words. We want to say just the right thing, or at least not say the wrong thing.
Here are some principles I try to keep in mind when expressing sympathy to someone:
- Love them.
- Share their sadness.
- Be moved to compassion. Act. Write. Do something.
- Validate feelings, instead of telling them how they should feel or what they should think.
- Pray for help.
Feeling genuine love for someone guides you to respond in the right way. Love is trying to put yourself in their shoes. Love is caring about them and focusing on them, wanting to relieve their suffering.
The Apostle Paul included “love unfeigned” as an important attribute when ministering to others (2 Corinthians 6:6). At the latest General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Hugo E. Martinez shared how love was obvious when others brought potable water to him and his family after Hurricane Georges in 1998. He said, “Their service—in other words, their personal ministry—brought much more than drinking water into our lives. To every son or daughter of God, knowing that people are interested in and watching out for his or her welfare is essential… The love of Jesus Christ must be our guide if we are to become aware of the needs of those we can help in some way.” (“Our Personal Ministries,” October 2014).
In sum, love is the necessary starting point. It is what makes the difference.
Share Their Sadness
I think it’s helpful to look at Jesus Christ’s compassionate example in the scriptures. When Jesus came to two of His friends, Mary and Martha, who were mourning the recent death of their brother, Lazarus, He responded this way:
“When Jesus therefore saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,
“And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:33-35, emphasis added)
You might not always be moved to tears at the sad things others experience, but you can still share in their sadness. By so doing, you emulate Jesus. Incidentally, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), part of our baptismal covenant is to be “willing to mourn with those who mourn…and comfort those who stand in need of comfort” as the prophet Alma described it (Mosiah 18:9, The Book of Mormon). This willingness to share in others’ sadness is part of the baptismal covenant because it shows commitment to follow Jesus’ example of compassion.
Be moved to compassion. Act. Write. Do something.
In the New Testament, we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion” which prompted Him to heal people of their sicknesses (Matthew 9:36, 14:14). Because He was moved emotionally, He was moved to action.
Andrew J. Workman, a friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith, recounted a situation when the Prophet’s compassion motivated him to act: “I was at Joseph’s house; he was there, and several men were sitting on the fence. Joseph came out and spoke to us all. Pretty soon a man came up and said that a poor brother who lived out some distance from town had had his house burned down the night before. Nearly all of the men said they felt sorry for the man. Joseph put his hand in his pocket, took out five dollars and said, ‘I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do you all feel sorry?’” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 2011, p. 460)
Jesus cares a lot about our response to others, especially in hard times. He counseled, “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
I so appreciated when people went beyond a “like” on my Facebook post about my daughter in the NICU. Emails, texts, cards, hugs, flower bouquets, babysitting, care packages in the mail – it showed me that people really cared. They didn’t wait for me to respond to “if there’s anything I can do…” They were proactively helping me bear my burden (Mosiah 18:8) such that I didn’t feel left alone in my grief.
Validate feelings, instead of telling them how they should feel or what they should think.
Jesus went through every trial, sickness, pain, and difficulty we would ever experience so that he could comfort us (Alma 7:11-12). In short, He’s been there and He understands. He does not minimize our feelings as part of providing comfort. Instead, He allows us to be sad and weeps with us. He knows that sadness does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. One can grieve even with a hope of the resurrection and of all things made right. It is okay to feel emotion!
Linda S. Reeves, a counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency of the Church, shared this insight into God’s character: “Our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ, know us and love us. They know when we are in pain or suffering in any way. They do not say, ‘It’s OK that you’re in pain right now because soon everything is going to be all right. You will be healed, or your husband will find a job, or your wandering child will come back.’ They feel the depth of our suffering, and we can feel of Their love and compassion in our suffering.” (“The Lord Has Not Forgotten You,” October 2012).
In the case of Mary and Martha mourning Lazarus’ death, Elder Paul H. Dunn explained how Jesus didn’t lecture the sisters for their seeming lack of faith: “Now, who would know better than Jesus Christ that there was to be a resurrection so that Lazarus would live again? He didn’t just say to them, ‘Chin up, ladies. It’s only a few years before you see your brother again.’” (“Because I Have a Father,” April 1979).
In the Church, we find great peace in the knowledge that families can be together forever. It is a wonderfully hopeful thought to cling to when you have lost a loved one. But, saying a terse reminder that “families are forever” is rarely helpful to one dealing with loss, especially without loving validation of their grief. Personally, I’ve found some comments to be more comforting than others. Things that have been less than comforting to me include “be strong and have faith,” “read this scripture,” “it’s for the best,” and “it was his time to go – he’s in a better place now.” Even if those things are true, I think they come across as preachy, harsh, and insensitive. Instead, when people say understanding things like “take all the time you need to grieve” or “I am so sorry you are going through this” (not “I’m sorry you feel that way”) I feel greater love and comfort.
Pray for help.
When you pray for a person grieving, you help strengthen and comfort them in ways you may never know. Jesus Christ knows how to succor (help or “run to”) people better than anyone. He can provide supreme comfort, grace, and strength through the Holy Ghost, who is known as the Comforter. As you pray, the Comforter can also inspire you in ways to help that you may not have considered. You can pray to be filled with charity, Christ-like love, as you seek to understand and minister to someone.
I have often felt an added strength as I go about my day, especially during hard times when I know others are praying for me. There is a tangible support and strength that I have only been able to attribute to others’ prayers on my behalf. During that NICU experience, I received a note from a couple friends listing the specific things they had been praying for us, which was very reassuring. I had felt the influence of their (and others’) prayers even before receiving their note.
In the end, nothing we do or say will take away someone’s grief. But, our compassion does make a difference (Jude 1:22). We can show our compassion by mourning with those that mourn – through feeling love, sharing in sadness, acting in compassionate ways, validating feelings, and praying for help. By expressing sympathy in Christ-like ways, we can help others feel Christ’s influence. He will not leave us comfortless, and like Him, we can strive to comfort those around us.