What can I say? Seven Ways to Comfort the Grieving

By Melissa McLaughlin

Making Small Talk

How is life treating you? How is work? How is the family? What are your plans for the weekend? How’s your sports team doing? Have you read any good books lately?

When catching up with family, friends, co-workers or neighbors, what do you usually talk about? How’s the weather?

With our closest friends, especially those who share our faith in Jesus, we may ask questions that go a little deeper. How has God been working in your life? Do you have any goals for growing closer to the Lord? How is your personal prayer time or Bible reading going? How can I pray for you?

Making Big Talk

We tend to vary the depth of our conversations and questions based on the level of intimacy shared. Regardless, even with our most cherished confidant or dearest family member, one of our least favorite topics to discuss is death. We may not mind talking occasionally or theoretically about death. Certainly, as Christians, one of our greatest joys is knowing that Jesus has won for us an eternal home in heaven, so death does not grip us with the same fear as those who do not believe in Jesus. Death does not have the final word for us. John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

However, as a general rule we would rather not discuss the impending death that each of us face, though death is our reality, as sure as the next breath we breathe. One day, our loved ones will die. One day, we will die.

Simply reading these words sucks the air right out of the room. At the thought of death, heavy gray clouds drift slowly in blocking the sunlight of our souls. Though we rejoice knowing one day we will be together with Jesus and all who have believed in Him, until that day we will surely miss each other on this side of heaven. Therefore, in the face of death, yes, Christians do have joy, though we endure a great sorrow in the missing.

Talking About Death

How do we navigate this difficult reality of life – namely, death?

Recently, a beloved aunt passed away. Mercifully, we were able to visit with her on the last day before she died. These moments are sacred, when the veil is thin between this world and the next. Though we try to hold back the tears, yet they fall. We pray for peace, we pray for rest in the Lord, we pray for joy in looking forward to seeing Jesus. Yet the tears fall. As they should. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. John 11:35 – When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” He asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they answered. Jesus wept.

What do we say at a time like this? It can be difficult to know the right words to say to family members who are grieving as they await the death of a loved one or after the person has passed. Sometimes we offer empathy, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Sometimes we strive for encouragement with phrases like, “They are in a better place.” “They are no longer suffering.” “They are with Jesus now.”

When we were blessed to visit our dear aunt before she passed away, we were able to share a short time together as a blessing to her, her loved ones and ourselves. We were able to tell her some ways she blessed our lives, pray, read a scripture and sing one of her favorite hymns, The Old Rugged Cross. Though she was not able to respond, we talked, hugged, prayed and sang anyway.

What Can We Say?

If you are facing the loss of a loved one or if the day comes for you, like it recently did for us, I offer you these simple thoughts.

1. The gift of conversation. If you are able, tell the person you love them. Tell him or her one example of how they blessed your life, whether a treasured memory, a time they helped you or special moment you shared together.

2.The gift of praying aloud. If you are able, pray aloud with the person. Thank God for His goodness. Even in times of suffering, we can remember God’s goodness to us for He sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and to win us for heaven. That is a greater goodness than anything we can have in this life. Thank God for the loved one. Thank God for all He has done in their lives. Thank God for the people who have helped care for the person. Ask for His peace, comfort and strength to cover each one who is affected. Thank God for Jesus who holds us now and forever.

Another idea for prayer is to say The Lord’s Prayer aloud together. (Found in Matthew 6:9-13 – Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.)

3.The gift of reading a scripture aloud. If you are able, read or if you know from memory, say a scripture aloud. The Bible, God’s Word, has a power and strength that our words alone do not. Psalm 23 is certainly a favorite in moments like this. It is also a wonderful scripture to read aloud because most people are familiar with this chapter or at least have heard the passage at some point in their lives. Psalm 23 gives comfort and hope in times of deepest suffering. Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

4.The gift of singing a hymn or worship song. Whenever possible, try to sing a favorite Christian hymn or worship song. If their favorite is unfamiliar, you can search for it on your phone to play and sing along. Music is an important tool for comfort and healing as it is stored in a deeper place in our soul memories. Many times people who suffer from memory loss and cannot remember anything else, can still sing along or hum along to a favorite hymn.

5.The gift of touch. Try to put your hand on the person’s shoulder, hold their hand, kiss their cheek, stroke their hair. The gift of touch makes your presence real and brings a soothing physical comfort that goes deeper, reaching to a person’s mind and heart.

6.The gift of your presence. If you cannot find the words to speak, pray or sing, just be present, holding the person’s hand and whisper “I love you” if you can. The gift of your presence is a profound gift. At times, a person’s illness or death may be unexpected, the person considered too young for such or their absence leaves vulnerable loved ones behind to struggle alone. Sometimes for reasons we cannot explain, there are no words. In moments like that, the gift of our presence is still a gift. Even in the silence, as we sit with the one facing death or the ones left behind, the gift of our presence speaks its own quiet message from the heart. The gift of your presence is felt deeply and remembered long.

7.When you cannot be present, the gift of your prayers is a gift. Sometimes we cannot be physically present with family or friends who are suffering, dying or grieving. We can still send a card, make a phone call or pray. Jan Karon, author of the Mitford series, has a quote that remains one of my favorites, “We don’t pray to do the greater work. Prayer is the greater work.” When we pray for someone, we connect earth with heaven. Through our prayers, God can release resources like peace, comfort and strength that we cannot supply by any means of our own.

What if the person is not responsive? What then?

I encourage you to treat the person as if they can hear every word you speak and feel every touch you give. Why? Let me tell you…

I was once told the most remarkable true story by our respected elderly pastor. Though in his senior years, he recounted this miraculous experience from his youth. He was just a teen at the time, maybe 18 or 19 years old, not yet a pastor, not yet even considering becoming a pastor, when all of a sudden his aunt went into a coma due to a sudden injury and illness. He went to visit her in the hospital. As he stared at her still body, no response, no talking, no body movement, no eye movement, completely still, barely breathing, he was at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know what to say or what to do. So he opened his Bible, read Psalm 23 and said a brief prayer. Still no response, so he left her room and drove home. Shortly after he left, his aunt died. Her body was moved to the hospital morgue and tagged for processing and final service preparations. After her body lay lifeless in the hospital morgue for about 20-30 minutes, to everyone’s surprise his aunt miraculously came back to life! Sometime later, when she had returned to her regular activities, she told him, “When you came to visit me in that hospital room, while my body lay still but for the breath of life, though I never moved a muscle, I heard every single word you said. Every. Single. Word. Don’t you ever forget that.” According to the pastor, he never did. To that day, whenever he visited with patients at home or in the hospital who appeared unresponsive, he spoke and interacted with them as if they were taking it all in.

Though this dear pastor himself has now gone on to heaven, I have never forgotten the story he told me about visiting his aunt that day. I carry his miraculous wisdom with me. Now that you know his story, I invite you to carry his miraculous wisdom with you, as well.

Precious Moments

Let us treat those sacred moments when loved ones are sick, unresponsive or close to death, as the most precious moments of life. Let us speak as if they hear, touch as if they are touching back, pray as if they pray with us, read as if they are listening and sing with whatever strength we can muster, knowing that in their hearts they sing with us, too.

Do you have experiences of walking with loved ones in their final moments? What thoughts or suggestions can you share? Please join the conversation.

Last but not least, maybe, just maybe, we should consider starting up these conversations of life and death or the “time between times” as discussions we can have right now, before the moments are taken from us. Though we prefer to focus on matters of life, when we converse about death in Jesus, we are actually reminding each other about life eternal. Yes, we cry for the missing now, we cry for the ending of this chapter and we cry for the longing of what will be. Though we cry… let’s talk, shall we?

Additional Resources

How Can I Experience the Peace of God? By Melissa McLaughlin

He Restores My Soul – Psalm 23 By Melissa McLaughlin

10 Scriptures About Death to Comfort the Grieving By Crosswalk.com

Understanding the Grieving Process By Focus on the Family

The Lord’s Prayer – By Michael Bradley

44 thoughts on “What can I say? Seven Ways to Comfort the Grieving”

  1. I love your “tips” I find that just being there for someone is a comfort. I don’t have to speak, just be present. Like Job’s friends in the beginning. They just sat with him in silence. Their hurt is so big and my words are so small.

  2. Our family was with Daddy as he passed on to Heaven. We gathered around his bed at home, we held his hands, thanked him for being such a good Daddy, and told him how much we loved him. Each person in the room recalls the moment of his passing differently. I believe God gave each of us the gift of being with Daddy as he passed.

    • Oh Mimi, how precious, how beautiful. God is so amazing how He ministers to each of our hearts in just the right way. Thank you for sharing that sacred moment. It brings tears to my eyes just to imagine. What a blessing that you could all be together with your beloved Daddy. God bless you!

  3. This is a beautiful post, Melissa. Thank you for the thought you put into it. I was present at the deathbeds of all 3 (step grandfather included) grandfathers, (though not up until the final breath) I am so thankful to have been gifted with those times. I recently bought Cynthia Ruchti’s book, As my Parent’s Age, to become more sensitive as well. I especially loved your suggestion to sing. That’s an amazing thought. Love it.

    • Dear Stephanie, how very precious to be with all 3 grandfathers in their final moments. What tender memories you must have from this. Thank you for sharing and for the book you recommended. It sounds like a very helpful resource. So many people have powerful experiences to share. I hope to become more sensitive, as well. May God take our little offerings of love and make them a great blessing to others! God bless you!

  4. Dear Melissa,
    These are such beautiful words you have shared here! And yes, I have found that all of your suggestions have been such amazing points of connection and love as so many of my dear ones were going home to Heaven. The most recent one that is still so fresh in my mind is the homegoing of my husband’s dear friend, and Best Man in our wedding. Because of my health, we had planned that I would just stay home, and my husband would make the 6 hour trip to be with him and his family when his homegoing was near. But amazingly, when we received that call, I just knew in my spirit that I HAD to be there with my husband. As God gave me extra strength to make that trip, it is one of the most precious memories that we hold in our hearts, just to be there, singing,praying, and sharing our love. God is so good to give us those times, and I think we don’t often realize how very important it is to make those connections. So thank you for sharing this encouragement today, to be present and loving at our dear ones’ homegoing.

    • Dear Bettie, I’m thanking God that He provided strength for you to share in your dear friend’s homegoing. These are such precious, treasured and rare moments. We can’t always be present but when we can, it is something so special, so sacred, that it is hard to capture in words. May God use us as He wills in these moments when heaven is so near. Blessings and love to you and yours.

  5. i love your tips and would add only one more. That we be willing to speak up for the dying loved one if we know them well enough. My own sister, as she was slowly dying from cancer, would face many visitors. When I asked her about it she told me that most of them stayed too long (not her daughters or husband, but others) and she felt like she had to entertain them, even in the hospital. She asked me if I would tell people she would like them to visit but to keep it short. She tired easily. We need to be able to “read” them with regard to what they need, not what makes us feel good.

    • Dear Beth, thank you for sharing your experience with you sister. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for all of you. You offer such good, good advice. I wish I had thought to include it in the article. May we pray for wisdom, listen, watch and ask what is best for the ones we are trying to support. We can always pray, if our presence is not needed. Or as you say, keep the visit short. I appreciate your helpful, heartfelt insights. God bless you.

  6. This sure is a tough topic to tackle, but I love your suggestions.

    That story about the pastor’s aunt is so great. First, she came back to life! What?!? But also that she was able to tell him she heard him in her nearly dead state. I have heard this before and try to keep it in mind, but if I’m totally honest, I avoid situations where it will matter. It’s just too uncomfortable for me. When I get to point that those very close to me may be in such a situation, I hope I will have matured and grown enough to be of some help to them rather than just sit there awkwardly in my own discomfort.

    • Dear Nicole,
      First off…she came back to life! I know! How amazing is that! Which makes her advice all the more memorable.
      As for your reluctance in situations like this, please don’t feel bad. Your quiet presence is still a gift. Or your prayers if you don’t feel.comfortable being present. There are so many ways to express how much you care. I should have clarified that in the article. God will use our unique gifts and styles to touch the lives of others. Your kind and gentle presence and steady faith is a great gift. Bless you!

  7. Thank you for those tips. That veil does become thin as a person draws nearer to leaving this world. One of my aunts, as she spent her last days on earth, began to have visits with a brother who had died many years before. He would come into the room and talk with her. When she would awake from her short naps she would look for him to be there and if he wasn’t she would ask where he was. The hospice nurse told those who were staying close to my aunt during those days that people who are dying were often half in this world and half in the next; that what was happening with my aunt was not an uncommon thing to happen. We think of heaven as so far away and it isn’t. We are just separated from it by our own physical bodies and once they cease to function we simply step across the threshold. To be absent from the body is to be present with the LORD. Such a comfort.

    • Dear Michelle, what an incredible story about your aunt I love the way you say once our physical bodies cease to exist we step across the threshold. How much that exemplifies the verse “to be absent from the body is to be present with the LORD.” You are right. That is a comfort like no other. Thank you for sharing this special memory. What a gift. Bless you.

  8. Dear Melissa, so sorry to hear about your aunt’s passing. But I celebrate she’s with Jesus. Love how you’ve so beautifully tackled this subject of death and how to approach it. All your suggested gifts make the last moments we spend with a loved one more precious and memorable than ever. And I’m so glad you added to treat the person as if they can hear you. I’ve heard doctors and nurses say that even if they don’t respond in voice or even squeezing a hand, they are still likely able to hear our whispers in their ear and our singing and praying and reading Scripture aloud.

    When my dad passed away after 30 days in the hospital, he had been unresponsive for several weeks. Yet, we talked to him, touched him, visited with him and never stopped. I got up close to his ear and whispered how I loved him. Although it makes me tearful just typing this, I’m so glad I was able to be there during his last days on this earth. So grateful. And I’m so thankful for you and this article and for your writing.

    • Oh Karen, your words brought tears to my eyes. What sweet, precious, tender moments you shared with your dad in those last days together. What an unspeakably rich gift from God to have been there with him. And though your dad was unresponsive, I am convinced he experienced your love, your words and your loving presence. Thank you for sharing something so beautiful and holy with us. I appreciate your kind words of comfort for me and my family, as we remember my beloved aunt. May God bless you and your dear family in all you do.

  9. The seven ways are the essentials. Oh, yes, they are! But that kicker you add at the end grabs hold! Already taken to the morgue, but still alive! Wow! And she heard everything. These are helpful tips for anyone walking into a death situation. And, if we haven’t, we all will at some point, for, as you pointed out, we all will die and so will our loved ones. It’s a reality. It’s the only way we can move into God’s presence, unless Jesus comes first. This is a great post, Melissa! A service to those who mourn.

    • Glory to God! The Lord is still moving in amazing ways in the lives of His people. I’m so thankful I was able to hear of this miracle, so I could pass it along. I pray it will be of help to someone else, as it has been to me, for you are right, Melinda, we all face the reality of death. May we bring glory to God and comfort to others in each moment. Bless you!

      • I understand and feel your heart. It is our reality one day, so it is worthy of our thought, prayers and writing. I’m praying for rest, renewal and strength for all that is before you this day. May we not grow weary, sister, for your life and your testimony is all your own and God is using you to do things that only you can. May God use us to bring glory to Him in all ages, stages and places – whether in darkness or light, wellness or illness, may we cling to Jesus and hep others see Him as we do. Shine on, dear Melinda!

  10. Melissa, I praise the Lord for His gift to you in what you have written. One of our books One Month to Live ~ A Father’s Last Words is the account of my walking through the valley of the shadow of death with my dad until his death on Labor Day (resting in the Lord) 1994. Amazing things happened during those three weeks that proved the Lord’s presence. Blessings as you continue to share what the Lord gives you. “Precious to the Lord is the death of His saints.” 🙂

    • Dear Frances, how precious indeed are these times when we go to meet our Savior. I praise God for how He revealed His presence to you as you walked those days with your beloved dad. I will definitely order your book, as it sounds very inspiring. I look forward to reading about your experiences as God touched your life in this way. God bless and keep you!

      • Thank you Melissa. God began preparing me for those three weeks a few years before in 1992, with a hew heart and spirit in service to Him. Since then, my dad’s cancer, caring over four years for my mother with Alzeimher’s disease and for Jerry for the last twelve years, has been an amazing life under His total care for us all. Blessings for your week. 🙂

  11. When my Dad passed away a dozen years ago now it was tragic. I was unable to function well, and my small group knew it. They all arranged to make meals for my whole family after the tragedy, and that was such a huge blessing! When one is in deep mourning, especially from an unexpected death, one can’t even think to make dinner sometimes. So, simply meeting people’s physical needs is another way to help comfort those in times of grief.

    Your tips and suggestions are very thoughtful and very much needed for those who mourn. Thanks, Melissa.

    • Oh Lisa, my heart aches to hear about your the tragic loss of your dad. What a blessing that others could meet your physical needs in such a practical way, for it is true, when we are in deep mourning, it is hard to just get through each day. Thank you for this important reminder. Looking for ways to meet people’s physical needs is critical as we minister to one another in times of grief. God bless you!

  12. This is truly helpful! There have been times I have been left wondering what to say/do in times like this, usually opting to say nothing. In such moments platitudes or cliches do not help, and can actually do more to upset than comfort. You have now given me practical suggestions to fall back on if ever needed. I appreciate that God bless you!

    • I’m thanking God that these thoughts were helpful to you, dear Juanita! Sometimes being quiet is enough, but when you feel that tug to say something to one who is hurting or feel the person is waiting for a word of encouragement, I hope and pray God will use these experiences to speak through you. God bless you!

  13. Thank you Melissa for these helpful and thoughtful tips. It can be hard to know what to say or do at that moment. I love Jan Karon’s books too!! God bless you and big hugs! 🤗❤

    • Vivian, I appreciate your kind support! I pray we will all share our experiences and wisdom as we help one another through the hard times, as we are stronger together. Yes, Jan Karon’s books are a treasure, so many golden Godly nuggets in those stories. God bless you, sister!


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