When someone in your circle loses a loved one, a job, a home, or experiences great tragedy, there is an immediate, appropriate urge to offer words of comfort. This desire to walk with someone through pain is holy. The result, however, can be hit or miss, depending on where a person is in the processing of their grief.
Some phrases can be downright insulting, and I’ve snapped unfairly at a few friends who’ve offered to meet me in my own grief. I recently lost my mother to cancer, and my industry to the pandemic. Here are a few phrases I’d recommend avoiding when encountering someone in grief.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This is the trashiest of trash bag sayings. There’s a big lack of free will going on here, which is one of the foundations of faith. God “gave” my mom cancer? God “made” my friend have a miscarriage? I don’t buy it, nor should you. God doesn’t will these things to happen. God allows them to happen, because we live in a fallen world.
A “fallen” world is one in which sin and death are present. This means there is sickness, disease, economies built to reward selfishness, natural disasters, divorce, rape, war, unexplainable chronic illness, and tons and tons of loss. God doesn’t desire these things, nor did God create them. In fact, the whole point of Jesus coming to join our human condition is to undo death.
If you find yourself turning to this phrase, may I suggest a different one instead? A line that works better with our faith is that God wastes nothing. This notion is far more resonant with the resiliency of the human spirit.
“God needed another angel in heaven.”
First of all, this makes it sound like God is a selfish jerk who just points at unsuspecting humans and pops them into heaven because God’s lonely. Yeah, no. Not to mention that this line is that it is ridiculously theologically unsound: humans and angels are different kinds of beings. One does not become an angel in heaven — one becomes a saint. Read a book.
“She’s in a better place.”
I love to assume the salvation of my loved ones as much as the next guy, but this line denigrates the present world in a way that doesn’t sit well for a grieving person. The inference is being that here, with us, was something to get away from.
Anyone who has dealt with grief also has had to deal with the reality that, regardless of our personal experience with someone, we don’t know if they’re in heaven. That’s part of the deal. That uncertainty is what grants urgency to praying for the souls of the departed.
Do I believe my mother is in heaven? Absolutely. But to tell me that she’s in a “better” place — even if that may be factually correct — makes it sound like here, with me, was a drag. No bueno.
Here’s a better way to phrase this sentiment in a way that’s also less insulting to those of us still wandering around this life: Acknowledge that those who are gone are no longer experiencing earthly pain. My mom had cancer, and she was in ridiculous pain for months before she died. She’s no longer in pain — not in that way. That is something that gives my family peace.
“God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”
I have a feeling that this grew out of the words of Mother Teresa: “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle, I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” It’s a classic quip with a satisfyingly flippant air that adorns coffee mugs and wall hangings in homes across the world. But it’s just that: A great line from a great woman giving a humorous perspective on her work with the poor.
Will God actually give us more than we can handle? Ask that question of anyone who has suffered an anxiety attack or succumbed to an addiction or suffered abuse and you’ll see just how false it rings.
God isn’t sitting in the clouds doing calculus to make sure you’re only given a certain amount of “hard” in life. Bad things happen. God isn’t doling out cancer and job loss, sprinkling it only on those who can “handle” it.
Take the logic a step further: So refugees are just heartier? Kids with leukemia are stronger? People who go through divorce are somehow better equipped to handle it than those who don’t? Children only die in families with tough parents? Baloney. BALONEY, I SAY.
Good things can (and are) drawn out of bad situations. Refugees, cancer patients, divorced couples, and parents who’ve lost a child are presented with a loss that is incalculable for anyone who isn’t in that situation. And yet, in the majority of cases, they keep going. Humans are the most adaptable, phenomenal, resilient creatures because loss happens all over the world, every day — and people keep going.
Here’s a better phrase: God never abandons us.
God’s love never stops. God can work with anything. Love wastes nothing.
Look at the lives of the Saints. You’ll find mothers who had troubled pregnancies (Gianna Beretta Molla), people who struggled with depression, and refugees (Mary and Joseph). You’ll find a Saint who got sick with leprosy (Damien), a Saint whose son drove her crazy because he made every bad decision possible (Monica), and a Saint who died at 19 from an infection in his leg (Nunzio Sulprizio). These men and women weren’t “given” only as much as they could “handle.” They lived in reality, in this world, and made choices based on the cards life dealt them.
When someone is going through loss and grief, we all have a desire to share words of comfort. There’s an urge to find a reason for the loss, to make things make sense. We want to see order in the chaos, or a reason for why things happen the way they do. Maybe if God wanted this to happen, it makes the pain easier to bear. It makes the decisions about cancer treatments or relationship choices less important by framing a tragedy as inevitable. It absolves us of the “what if.”
Perhaps that is comforting — but it isn’t true. The truth is that we will never know what would have happened if the cancer had been caught earlier, if the opiate hadn’t been prescribed, if a drunk driver had chosen a different lane, or if the investor stuck it out another month. We live in a world created out of love, in which things that challenge and refute love are allowed to exist. We sin. We experience loss. We suffer addiction and illness. We make war. That’s the deal with humanity: Love and tragedy are both present.
Does love win? I think so. The community and ritual of our Catholic faith tradition help me remember that. But there’s no way to escape living in this world with its tragedy and loss. It means financial struggles and relationship hiccups. It means moments of deep joy. It means everything, not just the easy and good things.
I find that embracing “everything” makes my life richer. My heart is more tender because it’s been broken. My love is fuller because of whom I’ve lost. I really do believe the Benevolent Creator from whom I come is just as interested in using my life, and all its tragedies, for goodness and art and as I am. And that is comforting.