Don't Send a Sympathy Card


Knowing how to respond to another person's loss can be difficult. Dee Brestin shares a few insights on what not to do.

I thought I was a wise comforter. I wasn't.

I'm wiser now.

Yet, I still need to be continually reminded on what helps and what hurts.

Dogs know how to bring comfort. They simply come alongside and are silent. But people, even Christians, often try to fix the unfixable, uttering platitudes, pointing out the silver lining, or preaching little sermonettes based on Romans 8:28. I believe Romans 8:28, but it was all I could do when people quoted it to me not to give them a swift karate kick. Solomon tells us there is a “time to speak and a time to be silent,” and high-tide grief is the time to be silent.

When Steve (my husband) passed away, ironically, the two women who comforted me most were those who would not call themselves born-again Christians.

One was my childhood friend Barbara. When I wrote her with our dread news, she e-mailed back with three words in gigantic bold black:


It comforted me. She did not tell me to trust God, or to think positively... she got into my pain with me.

Likewise, when I called my sister Bonnie, all she could do was sob. She tried to talk, but she simply could not. She called me back a little later, apologetic, but I told her it was just what I needed. I don’t know why it divides the pain to have someone weep with you, but it does.

Some time after, an article poured out of me which Focus on the Family published entitled “Don’t Send a Sympathy Card.” It isn't that I’m opposed to all sympathy cards, and there actually are some good ones—but, as I said in the article, “I have an invisible knife sticking out of my heart—people who have suffered see it—but those who haven't, press up against me with platitudes, pressing that knife to excruciating depths of pain.” Sympathy cards can drip with platitudes and some, when I opened and skimmed, went directly in the trash. I knew the people meant well—they didn't mean to push the knife in. I needed to show them the same grace Jesus has shown to me. I needed to remember how many times I had stuck my foot in my mouth!

It meant so much to me when people would take the time to write a note, telling me what they remembered about Steve and loved. I know there are times when you don’t know the person who was lost—and a card seems your only option—but just choose very carefully, so you don’t exacerbate their pain. No preaching. Just sympathy. And write a line—even just an “I’m so very sorry.”

I understand wanting to fix someone’s pain—I've done it—I get so nervous, I so want to help them that I begin to stammer and a platitude slips out, slapping a tiny Band-Aid on a gaping wound. But in trying to fix the unfixable, I am making it worse, minimizing their pain, pressing that knife in deeper.

There is a Jewish custom called “Sitting Shiva.” When a friend had a catastrophic loss, family and friends would come and sit for seven (“shiva” means seven) days to comfort him. (Since seven is God’s number for completion—this means—stay alongside for “as long as it takes” to bring comfort.) Some of the principles of “Sitting Shiva” are:

  • Go and be silent.
  • Listen.
  • Don’t give advice.
  • Listen.
  • Mourn with those who mourn.

But even “sitting Shiva” can become a religious practice devoid of heart. Job’s friends sat Shiva, but all the time they must have been preparing their condemning speeches.


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