A “crisis” is any situation, expected or otherwise, which disrupts the normal flow of life and family. Whether a death, divorce, job loss, move, or mental health emergency, everyone eventually experiences a crisis, and everyone responds differently. Unfortunately, for those providing support, someone else’s crisis can be highly uncomfortable, and there are a number of cliches which escape our lips to occupy the uncomfortable space. From what I’ve studied and seen in nearly a decade of ministry, saying nothing at all and just being present is almost always the best option, but if you feel like you have to say something, I have a suggestion:
What not to say:
“He’s in a better place.”
Why it’s bad:
So I’m cheating a bit on this one. I actually think this is an okay sentiment to express when someone dies; you just have to be careful how you express it. Most major world religions affirm an afterlife that is far better than this one. In fact, Christianity spells out an afterlife where all pain and sorrow are wiped away, and we’re bathed in God’s presence at all times. In this vein, a chaplain I work with is fond of saying, “No, she’s not just in a better place; she’s in a far far better place.” We offer these sorts of words to ease people’s fears when someone dies, as if to say, “Your loved one is no longer in pain; he is at peace; and you don’t need to worry about him.” The danger comes in how you say all this.
When said with the wrong tone or at the wrong time, this expression can feel dismissive, almost taking away a family’s permission to grieve: “Why are you crying if she’s in a better place?” When “better place” talk enters the conversation, I’ve seen mourners admonish themselves and call themselves selfish for wanting to hang onto someone they deeply love. Forcing this sort of immediate detachment is not healthy grief. People need time to process and affirm what is happening, and we should never force that.
“I believe she’s in a better place, but it’s okay to wish she was still here.”
Why it’s better:
Sometimes people need permission to grieve.
For all our rational explanations of the world and our religions’ detailed descriptions of the afterlife, death still leaves a pain we can’t explain away. We need to leave space for people to react however they need. In my work in hospitals, I’ve seen people walk away without shedding a tear, and I’ve seen people throw things, scream, and collapse on the floor. Every person’s process is different, and our words surrounding a death need to encourage individual grief rather than dismiss it. These reactions are part of the process, and adding “it’s okay to wish he was still here” allows people to react however they need.
While it’s reassuring to know someone is in a better place,
it’s okay to wish that person were still here.
It’s a natural part of grief.