Why Dispensing Dogma Doesn’t Help Another’s Grief


(These photos I took in Paris while celebrating the 850 yrs. anniversary of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, like my faith, like yours, should be a sanctuary in this world of pain.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the same religion that can be at the very heart of the greatest peace and sweetest solidarity during one’s journey with grief can also be at the root of some significant pain and even alienation.

My experience in this regard is not unique.  In researching and hearing firsthand the stories of the bereaved, I’ve come upon the same phenomenon time and time again.  For many grief-stricken, additional and sometimes permanent injury results when the co-mourner, instead of consoling the sorrowing person, counsels her by dispensing religious clichés or platitudes or authoritatively delivering personal opinion disguised as doctrine. This means figuratively standing at a pulpit and preaching down to the person curled up on the ground in pain.

Sadly, the story is as old as the Bible.


You know about Job. He’s what we’d call today a total rock.  He’s been a missionary, he’s held bumper-to-bumper leadership positions in his church community, he could have been a minister, a pastor, a priest, a seminary teacher, a bishop, any member of your local or regional clergy. “Stalwart” begins to describe Job. But the Bible goes even further: Job is “perfect.”

He’s also doing quite well: the career, the property, the house, the big family. Which could easily make Job the object of envy for small minds looking on. Except that Job’s good. Good and generous with his time and means, kind and charitable in word and action. We read that he’s genuinely humble and doesn’t consider himself invulnerable; he’s always checking his back, harboring an inward fear that he (or his children) might do something to offend God, something to displease Divinity, something to shatter the magic.

And you know what happens next. Shatter.  This total rock of faith and paragon of life-long devotion to God experiences cataclysmic tragedy.


Make that tragedies.  Cataclysm after cataclysm, tragedy after tragedy.  Out of the clear powder blue he loses his home, his property, his career, his employees, every possible investment and any hope of a pension plan.  Materially, this man is more than leveled; he’s pulverized.

Then he loses his children, every last one of them, in one freak stroke of fate. And he contracts a gruesome illness, so that beyond losing the flesh of his flesh, he loses his very own flesh. Which drives his wife to telling him to give up on God. That would be right before she gives up on Job. Away we see her drive, away over the knoll, away with her bags in the trunk, all this meaningless misery a smudge of dust in her rearview.

The man, our rock, responds as rocks do. He falls to the earth. And there, even with his rent mantle spread in the dirt and his shaved head beating the gravel, his well-trained heart responds righteously: He worships God. He blesses the name of the Lord, doesn’t blame Him foolishly, holds fast to his integrity, and swears through the mouthful of mud he sucks through in his rotting teeth that he will trust in His God forever.


Enter Job’s three good friends.

Here is where we should all take copious notes. Why? Because more of us will find ourselves in the role of Job’s friends than we will Job’s. More of us will be called to look into the face of another’s tragedy than will face tragedy of our own. But one thing is certain: All of us will find ourselves at one time or another – or many times – taking part in this scenario.  We are destined and we are covenanted to mourn with those that mourn.

So let’s pay attention to this story together.

What happens?


After fulfilling their Jewish duty by coming and sitting Shiva’s requisite seven days of solidarity in silence, Job’s friends watch in astonishment as their friend  – good, rock-solid Job – erupts, his anguish roiling and gushing over the page.

Job, like many who are mourning, is feverishly reconstructing his universe.  He’s volatile. His pleading and confusion are not pretty or predictable.  He’s prickly in some verses, maybe even frightening in others, and surely foreign to his friends. And he’s erupting with questions only God can answer.

Here is where Job’s friends make their fatal move.  They stand right up (they remove themselves from solidarity with Job, who is figuratively and literally broken and splayed on the ground), and they begin preaching. They have all the answers, typical of those who have not quite yet understood the questions.

You can picture them: Arms folded across chests or fingering their earlocks, scratching their beards, circling dust-encrusted Job, raising one brow, sizing him up, talking.  Can they talk.  Bless their Mesopotamian hearts, but their talk is not inquisitive; it is inquisitorial.  The more they talk the less they seem to care about Job’s pain, and they don’t seem to grasp God’s purposes with him, although they speak as if they do.  The more they do this, the more injury they inflict on their already-injured friend.

At first, they imply that Job probably had it coming to him anyway.  Next, they reason that Job would not be feeling so torn up if he’d had more faith – like themselves, no doubt.  Then they sniff around for Job’s sins and his children’s sins, which they assume must be multiple, given how severely God is punishing him.  Not only stripped to the bone with tragedy, Job’s faith and his rightness with God are doubted by friends, friends who fail him spectacularly.

As anyone wrestling with bone-liquefying pain will attest to, it is not comforting to be preached to, nor to have one’s faith questioned by spectators.  Come to think of it, it’s no fun to have wide-eyed spectators when wet-eyed comforters are what you need. No wonder Job blurts out, “miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:1-2)


While his friends do little to comfort Job, we can be thankful for them. Because in them we have an excellent template for how not to comfort those in need.

The following list of clichés, platitudes and trite phrases is culled from the experience from many aggrieved from my own circle of friends or from the research from authors noted at the foot of the list.

You might wonder, as some have, what’s wrong with some of these statements.  Aren’t some of them at least partially true?  

Yes, some of them might be true and might align with your values.  But the nature of clichés and platitudes is that whether they are entirely or partially true or not true at all, they are overly simplistic and when dispensed too easily, show no hint of co-mourning.  What’s worse, in the case of some statements in this list, the speaker assumes to understand the will of God in another’s life.  What is critical to remember is that the bereaved must come to this sacred understanding on her own, and doesn’t need someone who has no experience in the matter to sum up her grief or God’s will for her. Any attempt to do such will alienate the grief-stricken from friends and maybe, in the worst case, from her faith.


It’s God’s will

God took him (or her)

God needed your son (your spouse, your brother, your father) more than you did

Don’t cry. You’ll see him again

He lived a good life. He was ready to go

He has just begun his mission a little early

God gave you this trial to make you stronger

You need to be strong. Don’t cry

If you’d had enough faith, she’d have survived (been healed)

She is much better off in heaven. She will be happier there

Because your child took his own life, you will never be together in the eternities

Count your blessings. Things could be worse

Your loved one is freed from this terrible world

You have an angel in heaven

God needed another angel

God doesn’t give us more than we can bear

Keep the faith

Rejoice in all things, including this

There are fates worse than death

She’s gone on and busy in heaven. Don’t distract her with your sorrow

God has selected you for this elite trial

—See Ashton, Jesus Wept, 126–27, 234


© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

(Several of the following quotes appear in my book, On Loss and Living Onward, available through Amazon and other online or conventional retail book sellers.)

Nothing is more barren, to one in agony, than pat answers which seem the unfeeling evasions of a distant spectator who “never felt a wound.”

—Truman Madsen, Eternal Man, 55


In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, as well as members of the church, who seemed very uncomfortable with my grief and sadness.  Looking back, I’m quite certain it was an awful experience for them to be around me or my wife. It seemed to us they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. . .They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for [our son’s] death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”.. .I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on—out of my presence.  The people who said these things were never people who had lost children.  Those who had lost a child knew better.

–Minister and bereaved father Dennis Apple, Life After The Death of my Son, p 122-123


Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet
I’ll never be over it.
Please, don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
She isn’t with me.
Please, don’t say at least she isn’t suffering.
I haven’t come to terms with why she had to suffer at all.
Please, don’t tell me you know how I feel
Unless you have lost a child.
Please, don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please, don’t tell me at least you had her for so many years.
What year would you choose for your child to die?
Please, don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please, just tell me you are sorry.
Please, just say you remember my child, if you do.
Please, just let me talk about my child.
Please, mention my child’s name.
Please, just let me cry.

–”Rita Moran: Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet,” Consolatio online

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true…

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 231


The posture of grief is on your knees.  Sooner or later, each of us finds himself playing one of the roles in the story of Job, whether a victim of tragedy, as a member of the family, or as a friend-comforter. The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues.

—Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 157

. . . Immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58; William, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

Attempting to console those who have lost loved ones . . . by saying it will be better in the next life tends to minimize their immediate pain: “It’s like you’re on a desert island and you are dying of thirst, and someone says, “Yes, you can have a drink, but not for thirty years!”

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 131

Many bereaved parents do find solace in their faith, but it is also normal for parents to experience a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs. They may find it hard to pray or too painful to attend church. As [one reverend] said, “I tell religious leaders that all of their inactive members are missing because of a loss of some kind.”. . . Sometimes parents don’t return to church because of comments made to them about their child’s death. . . .

Parents are often surprised by comments from others who presume to know what part God played in their child’s death. Responding to such comments can be too painful and parents may choose not to attend church, at least for a while.

—Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 132

There is already enough theological difficulty for those who believe that their activity in the church should somehow protect them from tragedy and sorrow.  Our understanding of the Atonement is hardly a shield against sorrow; rather, it is a rich source of strength to deal productively with the disappointments and heartbreaks that form the deliberate fabric of mortal life.  The gospel was given us to heal our pain, not to prevent it.

–Elder Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart


For God to foresee is not to cause or even to desire a particular occurrence–but it is to take that occurrence into account beforehand, so that divine reckoning folds it into the unfolding purposes of God. . .God has foreseen what we will do and has taken our decision into account (in composite with all others), so that his purposes are not frustrated.

–Neal A. Maxwell in “All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience” 8, 12

My heart goes out to each individual who bears the burden of mourning.  I share my feelings of empathy and sympathy.  The separation imposed by the departure of a loved one evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind.  The hurt is real.  Only the intensity varies.  Even though we understand the doctrine—even though we dearly love God had His eternal plan—mourning remains.  It is not only normal; it is a healthy reaction.  Mourning is one of the purest expressions of deep love.  It is a perfectly natural response—in complete accord with divine commanded: “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.” (D&C 42:45). . .Mourning is neither a sign of weakness nor is it to be avoided.  It, too, is an important part of God’s great plan of happiness. . . Mourning is the lubricant of love at the gateway.

-Elder Russel M Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death p. 22, 33

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It was the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My only consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

—William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 57


17 thoughts on “Why Dispensing Dogma Doesn’t Help Another’s Grief

  1. Thank you for this. I pray your efforts to ponder this with all of us will bring some glad tidings for 2013. I don’t like the word “ponder” here, but I can’t find the right verb to use: discuss, share, … , nothing seems to work. Perhaps, as you suggest above, just the first sentence would do, followed by “Geri and I miss you and your family.” Jack

  2. I have written and not sent you 2 emails on this subject of grief and co-mourning, but after reading this one I guess a nerve was struck and I can’t not respond. Kind of like how _you_ can’t not respond to Newtown and you are carefully, achingly trying to work this out for us all to read. I don’t pretend to know at what cost these words come to us but there are some wonderful things you have collected for us here (and only a couple of land mines*) so thank you for this epic attempt at getting to the heart of the matter.

    PS Is the book already written?

    • Julie, Send me those emails! I want to hear, I want to know. There are so many dangers in writing on grief, I’ve felt about 186 of those dangers hedging me in as I try to do it, and you’ve hit on one of them: presenting oneself as a spokesperson or authority on it. Who has that right but God? No one. And who does it ideally? No one. Not all the time. Because grief is mercurial, people are, situations vary wildly, and because anything one person does will be insufficient n the face of the task. I do, do want feedback, Julie. I absolutely do want to hear others’ perspectives. And no, the book is not out of editing phases yet, so there is wiggle room. And I hope to publish more than the anthology alone, as I believe the topic requires a series of essays and reflections based on much reader input like what I hope you will give me. And keep one thing in mind, perhaps: I know there are land mines in the quotes. Often, I intentionally place contradicting voices back-to-back. This, I believe, stimulates a more truthful discussion on grief, since regardless of certain tendency, everyone will respond differently. Still, I want to know about what is a *land mine* for people. And why.–Waiting for that mail. . .:-)

  3. Grief has always left me mute, my own and others. There really isn’t anything that can be said that will make it “better”. Taking care of practical matters is what helps and to do it for more than just a few days or weeks. Relieving them from some responsibilities for an indefinite period. It has always struck me dumb when a person expects something from someone dealing with a recent loss or tragedy. Whether it is an actual physical task or an emotional or spiritual effort. I am not saying that a person mourning could not do anything, but it should come from them, it is not up to those observing the grieving process, to draw them out of it or help them to see beyond it. The kind of statements you listed are so intrusive because they come with an expectation that if you truly understood, it would not hurt so much, you would not grieve so long, that surely you can make an effort and feel better. I was even told that if I was a true Christian I would not grieve at all.

  4. Janina– Your first and your last lines made me groan, nod, close my eyes and put both hands over my eyes. I hear you loud and clear. I’m so thankful you added this comment.

    I lost – or relinquished – my ability to speak for a several weeks if not a couple of months or so into my early trek with grief. It was a total language crisis; I could not get words to form in my mouth. Every last one was obscene, incorrect, flat and impoverished, unworthy of the world of feeling I felt crowding my chest. I could speak in small sentences to my husband and children, but spoke to no one else. No one. I tried to write emails and journal entries, but that was all I could do. Anyone who knows me can appreciate that speechlessness is not really. . . exactly. . .well. . .have you noticed how much I *write?* 🙂

    A book that treats this muteness is Marie Darrieussecq’s “Tom est Mort”, translated now into English, “Tom is Dead”, and may be one of the best treatments on parental grief I’ve ever read. It does, however, miss the vast world of spiritual comfort and all that I have known and continue to experience of that immense power. I do wish there were a book that captured both, but I’ve never found it. (If anyone has hints,let me know!)

    But Darrieussecq’s book is effective because it’s relentlessly stark. Intense. Incoherent in parts, restrained in others, dizzying, exhausting. Brilliant and troubling. Like deep grief. At one point, the mother goes through a phase of actual physical muteness, which should not be too surprising, I suppose, given that many who experience profound trauma retreat into profound wordlessness. (Think of Maya Angelou’s five years of muteness as a young girl.)

    My subsequent research about the muteness you mention surprised me: It happens more often than one would think. And so I include a couple of quotes in the anthology on exactly this phenomenon.

    To your last phrase, Janina. Oohh. I know that line. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, too. I am saddened to hear you have. What could be more hurtful? Teryl and Fiona Givens’ fine and beautifully written, The God Who Weeps, dispels the damaging idea that mourning is somehow an indication of faithlessness. Stoicism is neither the Savior’s mode nor model. We should all know better.

    Love to you, friend.—M.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I keep commenting on your blog because I cannot stop reading it. I even read all of your comments. In one response, you wrote something that struck a chord. I don’t remember your exact words, but you wrote that writing about grief can feel like plowing a field with a toothpick.

    I sometimes don’t even talk about my grief, because I feel that the task of trying to put words to my bereavement will only add to my frustration. It is SO helpful, and so meaningful, to read of shared experiences – to read your writing and know that somebody has felt the same as I have.

    On the topic of cliches and platitudes – I completely agree. I have many of the ones you have listed, and each time, they hurt, and caused personal cognitive dissonance – why didn’t I see that my brother’s death was part of a grand plan? Why was I having a personal struggle with faith? What was wrong with me?

    Even so, there was one “platitude” of sorts that I still find helpful. When we were in the hospital with my brother, my grandfather looked at me and said, “Rebecca, do you know why this hurts so much?” I didn’t know how to answer; he responded to my silence. “Your deep pain is borne of the deep love you have for your brother.” I don’t know if this counts as a cliche, but ever since then, the words go through my head often that pain is borne of love.

    I think the reason this interaction was able to take on deeper meaning for me is that my grandfather didn’t follow up with “and how lucky you were to have had that love,” or anything of the sort. I came to that conclusion on my own. I am lucky for the years of love I had/have – but that doesn’t make the loss better. I guess it is the fact that this platitude came from a different place than most; it wasn’t said to pretty up a deeply horrible loss, it wasn’t for my grandfather to understand it better – it was an acknowledgement of the love I had for David, and an acknowledgement of my loss.

    The problem with most platitudes is they do the opposite. They pin your pain on things other than the loss. They diminish the loss. They cause you to question your own reactions and bereavement.

    I think the best way somebody can react to somebody else’s loss is to acknowledge the loss. It can be hard to not feel like you have something positive to say to the bereaved, but I think the ability to show that you care about their grief through acknowledging it is a powerful, beautiful thing in itself.

    • Rebecca–Don’t stop coming here with your fresh, strong words. Wise words. Clearly-figured concepts. I like very much (and agree soundly with) your statement that platitudes pin one’s pain on things other than the loss. This is brilliant and helpful.

      I also heave a big sigh of agreement with your dear grandfather, who wisely knew that a visceral agony at loss is rooted in a viscerally felt love. Great grief is about great love, not small faith. Things rip and tear on a soul level and that is evidence of tightly knit souls. Of course. How beautiful. And how brutal.

      (I’m silently hoping here that your grandfather’s careful, true and loving insight was something to hang onto when others brought loads of (well-meaning) bunk.


      Your shattering loss remains every-present for me in my imagination. I am sure it will be there, teaching and shaping me, forever.

      Much sisterly love, Rebecca. I love your family—M.

  6. I stumbled on your post tonight. I should be sleeping, but I’m searching the web for the right combination of words for my friend. Her son took his own life three weeks ago today. Every day since the funeral, I tape a handwritten note on her door. I’m not a good cook and I’m not artistic, but I bring over treats and my kids make cards. I pull the weeds in her flower beds. I give her big, long hugs. I am overwhelmingly aware that it’s not enough. I don’t know what to do except to write again and again how much I love her, love her son, love our Savior. Yet when I consider the amount of grief, guilt, pain, loss and loneliness she is feeling, I’m gripped with an almost obsessive desire to find something to ease her suffering. I know only the Atonement of Jesus Christ can truly do that. But how can one see a friend in such desperate need of rescue, and merely “be there” for them? A good, wise man told me and my husband last week that it is often through our service that the Lord’s grace is bestowed on others. But Christ’s love is perfect and my offering is entirely inadequate. I feel like an impostor; every phrase is hollow and every sentiment sounds broken. My life is happy, and hers is in ruin.

    I’ll keep praying for the ability to perceive my friend’s unexpressed needs and the inspiration to meet them in some measure. And I will go to sleep now, because I am no good to anyone tired. But if you have words of advice, please share them. After reading your thoughts here, I feel you could help me.

    • Maria:

      This comment pulls a dark curtain over a sunny Swiss day. I am glad you wrote, and I am listening intently.

      Your friend’s life is changed in its absolutely particulate elements. You are aware of this. You are responding with every tool and scrap and godly impulse you have in your reach. This, to me, is enough to get tears pushing up my throat. To have such a friend! I’ve had some, too, and they, in all their beautiful human bumblingness, have been utter examples of the most godly that is in us. Saviors. And even the Savior Himself did not always remove others’ devastation. He could have, I know that; but He did not. We can’t remove another’s pain either, and that is a cruel reality to live with. We can, however, stand at the waiting, and be present in another’s agony. That’s what you are doing. The challenge is to not tire from doing good, and believe me, if you are really committed to being in this with your friend, you’re heading into a long, long story that will be very, very tiring. It will tax you, this mourning and comforting thing. But you’ll probably see God — an your friend — in a new way,too.

      If I were in my darkest cave of crisis, like your friend, and if I were to stumble upon this blog comment of yours in the middle of my (months and months of) sleepless nights, I can assure you that this comment of yours alone would be a bonfire of power to my bones. The fact that you have been terrorized by your friend’s personal tragedy says everything. You have done much –all your doings from notes to weeds to hugs to stunned silence – are gestures of solidarity and love. Your friend, though brutalized to a pulp, must see these things, must feel their power in her life. If she were to also know that you are scrambling, groping, wandering numbed through the Internet, searching for something for her – that alone is proof of your sisterhood. That brings strength and comfort.

      A small hint of advice: You can never err by simply listening. Grief of this magnitude can catapult the bereaved into a state of sheer isolation. Grief isolates, and major grief, like this one, isolates more, if that is even possible. Think of that isolation as the atmosphere on the moon: you get an idea of the quality of silence. To know that someone will willingly sit and listen in that kind of oppressive silence is itself powerful. Just sit. And listen. And follow her lead. What might come out when she can finally speaks could be scary, loud, halting, or tear-sodden, a string of existential questions, or incomprehensible growling and moaning. . . There is no language whose symbols stretch far enough to cover this hell. And so as her friend, I think you would want to listen not only to her, but to God’s voice within you, which increases your capacity to understand and feel what she is feeling. That is terrifying, I know. But it will teach you much, and she will feel your love. Love is the finest you can offer, and I sense you have a lot of that to give.

      I am here, listening to you, too. I pray you’ll be inspired.


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