Avoid the Flippant Comfort of Hallmark Answers

April 27, 2008 at 6:23 am 31 comments

How to Help Your Grieving Friend, Part 8

About a year ago, friends of my family lost their 27-year-old son in a motorcycle accident. He died instantly. Not living close to them, I wanted to send a card so they would know that I was thinking about them and praying for them.

Buying this card was a first for me. Not because I hadn’t ever bought a sympathy card, but because, now that I’m a parent, this was the first time I could imagine this kind of pain in some measure. I have a little boy.

Hallmark was just not cutting it. I looked and looked. Eventually I think I settled on one that was blank inside. I remember being frustrated that all the sympathy cards were just…so…pretty.

I’ve come to use a phrase since Felicity’s death: Hallmark answers.

Hallmark seems to offer comfort and explanation too quickly or lightly. Unfortunately, real people do this too sometimes. I think this tendency, even when offering “spiritual” comfort and explanation, comes from an inability to accept or understand grief.

I know that I was this kind of well-meaning comforter before we lost Felicity. People in too much pain made me nervous. I wondered if they might be losing their faith, so I felt the need to say something quick to patch up their brokenness. I was unable to easily reconcile my view of God with the pain I encountered.

The result of this kind of nervousness and discomfort is often Hallmark answers—flippant comfort. It’s as if when we say something like, “God is good. God is good,” we’ve fixed the problem for ourselves. But where does that leave the brokenhearted?

Hearing that God is good doesn’t always feel good. For people who are walking through deeply painful times, knowing that God is good can actually make things feel worse, because if this is goodness….

Hallmark is too pretty; Hallmark is too decisive; Hallmark is too composed.

None of the things your grieving friend is feeling can be described with these adjectives—pretty, decisive, composed.

The problem isn’t that Hallmark answers are false. They’re just inadequate because they don’t get deep enough to touch the pain. If you haven’t entered the person’s pain, even declarations of God’s goodness or sovereignty can feel like Hallmark answers.

Speaking into someone’s pain requires empathy. Choked words through tears are empathetic. Offering supplications and prayers with loud cries and tears, like Jesus, is empathetic. Speaking a verse with a posture of “I don’t understand how this all fits with your pain, but…” is empathetic.

A few months ago I attended my first baby dedication since we lost Felicity. I knew this would be hard, but our dear friends were having their beautiful little boy dedicated. I wouldn’t have missed it.

Right before the service began, I was really struggling. I’m sure it was obvious to anyone who saw me in the commons. At that moment, a woman passed by with her family. I knew her story a bit, but I’d never had a conversation with her in my life. What I knew is that they have a twelve-year-old, blind son with severe autism and stunted growth. And I knew that this woman nearly died of breast cancer a few years ago. She hugged me tight and spoke through teary eyes, “God is faithful.”

That was all. And it was incredibly powerful for me.

The point is not that you have to have suffered more than someone to comfort them; you just need to empathize. There was no question in my mind that she knew my pain. I discovered that once you have entered someone’s pain, then you are in the place to offer comfort, and it won’t be from Hallmark.

All things work together for good. He gives and takes away. God is faithful and good.

(Read other posts in this series.)

Entry filed under: Grief. Tags: .

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31 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jennapants  |  April 27, 2008 at 8:47 am

    miles just walked up to me. and dropped something next to me. plunk. “here’s a box of kleenex. just in case you need it.” seven months later. somebody else’s little girl. and the tears just keep coming.

    Reply
  • 2. shawnda  |  April 27, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    tears. This post was very good, Molly, and something I actually can relate to (minimally!). When we were struggling with infertility, we heard these “Bible bullets” (that’s what I like to call them) all the time. There were times when I avoided people that I knew were going to give me Bible bullets, and there were times when I wanted to punch people who were giving me Bible bullets. It was definitely worse than silence! And it’s changed my perspective in serving others in pain (not to mention brought out a lot of my own sin!!!).

    I remember people saying to me “God has been so good to us b/c we didn’t have any infertility issues!”. I walked away going “WHAT??!!!!” If that is what makes God good, then we have some reevaluating to do! BUT, obviously, the point missing is that it’s NOT our circumstances that make God good – it’s HIS righteousness, holiness, unfailing love, compassion, ect – it’s HIM that makes HIM good! : ) I had to come to terms with that through some serious wrestling around and many tears!!!

    And can I just get it out there that I had the HARDEST time finding a card to send to YOU????!!!!! I stood in the card section CRYING b/c I couldn’t find anything that was satisfactory, and I didn’t even know what “satisfactory” meant! I just knew I wasn’t finding it (you said it very well – pretty and composed)!!!! I’m glad you knew it was hard to find a card so that you’d have more empathy on us sending the cards your way! : )

    I’m so glad you are writing about all of this, sister!!!!! It’s good, good, good!!!!

    Reply
  • 3. Katie R.  |  April 27, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Thank-you for articulating this so well! My husband & I were blessed & helped by it!

    Reply
  • 4. sumijoti  |  April 27, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I am so glad that you are still adding to this series! I had someone tell me: You are young, you can always have more children.

    I didn’t take offense because I knew he was just being ignorant but the truth is no, I can’t have any more children and nothing and no-one could ever replace Jenna anyhow.

    We were just moved by people who made the effort to send a card, or a hug, or a phone call – anything – even if they admitted that they didn’t know what to say. People think they need to say something to ‘help’ or to ‘fix’ things but they can’t. But just telling us that we were in their thoughts was a blessing in itself.

    Reply
  • 5. brandi mc  |  April 27, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I thank you for writing about this, and I want to tell you I feel sadness in my heart for you and the loss of your daughter. Your words are so powerful and helpful to us out here who not only experience our own grief, but also see our friends and family grieve.
    When someone is hurting, it is not “head knowledge” that they need. They do not need advice, spiritual peptalks, reason, facts, logic, etc. It’s not that these popular responses are ‘bad’, but it leaves the hurting person feel more alone with their pain, if no one is mourning with them. They are hurting, which is an emotion, and God calls us to “weep with those who weep” or “mourn with those who mourn” …they need emotion also. It is when someone mourns with another, that they feel the blessing of not being alone with that pain.
    I loss my mother 4 years ago to suicide. It is when my husband puts his arm around me and tells me how much his heart hurts for me, that I know I’m not alone with my sadness. And in that moment, I am blessed, and I get a clearer picture of God’s comforting heart through my husband.
    I don’t need to hear “she’s in a better place” or “she’s not hurting anymore” because although some of that may be true, again, it’s not what is needed in the moment. When someone has hurt, comfort is what God calls us to do. And you can only do that when you enter into someones ‘world” or pain and help them feel less alone.
    empathy. healing. hope.
    Thank you for letting me share. My heart goes out to you as you continue this journey.
    Brandi

    Reply
  • 6. Stacey  |  April 27, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I agree with this….I simply LOATHE sympathy cards. I guess because I know if it was me…….I just don’t wany sympathy or pretty words or soothing words….because my purrrsonality is such that I would want to be left alone w/my close family and grieve and truthfully no words from others would make me feel better. Might sound heartless but I am truthful. I almost always buy BLANK cards and just write a note.

    Reply
  • 7. sumijoti  |  April 27, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Another plattitude we often get is: “God loved her so much he wanted her to be with him in heaven”.

    UGH.

    If I had to believe that sentiment, I would have to conclude that God is selfish and heartless, to inflict such pain on me just because he ‘wanted’ Jenna with him.

    No, I can only find rest in the knowledge that God is both sovereign and merciful. I can trust him that he allowed something in his wisdom that he could have prevented in his power, and that he is motivated by love for me and not by his own selfish design.

    I also once blurted out something to a friend that I felt sorry for afterwards. She had said to me (and so did others) that maybe, somewhere down the road, something terrible was going to happen to Jenna and that God took her now, to save her from it. I told her that isn’t helpful at all. If that was the case, God could have simply prevented that thing from happening instead of taking Jenna away. I felt sorry for blurting it out because my friend had meant well, but people (myself included) often say stuff without thinking!

    http://www.sumijoti.wordpress.com

    Reply
  • 8. Tiffany  |  April 27, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Sometimes I am fully able to grieve with someone going through deep loss. Other times I am unable to grieve like I want to and then pray that God would help me to understand or to empathize more fully. Those prayers can be kind of scary. How will God cause me to ‘weep with those who weep’? Thanks once again for your honesty, Molly.

    Reply
  • 9. bean  |  April 27, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    I understand and appreciate this post very much. I never even sort of grasped these ideas until I went through my first experience with hyperemesis gravidarum and was bombarded by “helpful” advice that was very painful at times. While HG is nothing compared to losing a child, the same principles apply.

    One thing I wanted to add is that as I’m going through HG for a second time, I have really worked to remember that most of the time, those offering the painful advice or “comfort” really do mean well. They have no idea how it could be hurtful, and therefore I strive to not take offense. Depending on how strong I’m feeling, I may try to gently correct them or further explain the situation, or I may just move on with a quick “thank you”. It has saved me from so much of the upset that I experienced the first time through and is an opportunity for me to model Christlikeness in the midst of my trial. It is so easy to take offense, and only gets easier when we are in pain (not to mention hormonal for me! :) ), but God does not leave us alone in the battle.

    Reply
  • 10. Nicole  |  April 27, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    A powerful and very helpful post. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself in this series. It has been enormously helpful and encouraging to me and many, many others.

    Reply
  • 11. Elizabeth Esther  |  April 27, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    sometimes i just needed someone sit in silence with me.

    i didn’t need words. i didn’t want words.

    this, too, is its own kind of empathy.

    for this reason i did appreciate blank empathy cards. emptiness to speak to my emptiness. a blank card to speak to the blank spot left in my heart.

    Reply
  • 12. Benjamin Oetken  |  April 27, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I appreciate you taking the time to post all your thoughts and experience. My wife and I are members at Bethlehem and we have been married almost 6 months at this point and have already had 3 miscarriages. It has been most helpful in my constant striving to be a strong support and to care for her heart and soul during the mourning. Thank you.

    Reply
  • 13. Tina  |  April 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Dear Molly, this was such a beautiful and insightful post. Having struggled with depression for years (it is MUCH better now, almost gone) nobody understood or knew how to help me and I got alot of those Bible bullets. It always just made it worse for me.
    I will admit it is absolutely NOTHING like losing a child, but my pain was very real and deep.

    Anyway, lots of hugs and empathy coming your way tonight. God bless.

    Reply
  • 14. brandi mc  |  April 27, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    I agree, sometimes you just need someone to sit with you, without words, instead of trying to “fix” it.
    When I’m able to just cry and someone hold me, it can be more powerful than words. Yet, those who know me well, know what comforting words to say when I need it.
    I also know that other people mean well, and the reason they say those ‘unhelpful comments’, is because they ARE feeling sad for me. They do care, and they want to help. I’ve learned to not take it personal, but I admit, when you hear the same things over and over again, it’s hard not to react. I try to gently correct them, or just say thank you.

    Reply
  • 15. Corie  |  April 27, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you for your sheer honesty. It has been amazing to me how many people want to fix your sadness and pain rather then just listen. People seem so uncomfortable with grief…just like Jobs friends. I have had friends look on your blog and have been touched how you clearly explain just how grief feels. It seems it has helped them understand me during my time of losing my son. Thank you for sharing. It is being used!

    Reply
  • 16. Mrs. MK  |  April 28, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Thank you again. You speak right to my heart.

    Reply
  • 17. CFB in NC  |  April 28, 2008 at 8:47 am

    I just heard a lesson about encouraging one another at my church’s monthly ladies’ get-together. The teacher mentioned that using Romans 8:28-29 as a way of responding to another’s suffering/trial wasn’t always the best way to help her: Romans 8:28-29 tossed out there is like sending a pretty little Hallmark card in response to another’s suffering; It’s quick, it sounds thoughtful, it is well-meaning, but it doesn’t cut it. I’m grateful to know the truth of Romans (both in head and heart), but sometimes it’s more helpful for someone to just say “I’m sorry” or “I’m thinking of you.” Thank you for sharing your experience with this subject – it’s helpful for retraining my own responses in these situations.

    Reply
  • 18. Helping the Hurting. « bryanlopez.com  |  April 28, 2008 at 9:45 am

    [...] under Biblical Counseling &#183 Tagged counseling, grief, help Molly Piper writes a great post on Helping a Grieving Friend. It is well worth the read so check it out [...]

    Reply
  • 19. deb t  |  April 28, 2008 at 11:14 am

    A good word, Molly! Amen and amen!

    Reply
  • 20. Jolee  |  April 28, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Molly,
    This is so helpful. I have wrestled with some of those very same things. I can never find a card that seems sufficient, so I usually find a blank one. I have struggled with the Sovereignty of God in pain, is it ever appropriate to talk about with grieving believers or even non-believers . In our first card to you and Abraham after Felicity died, I quoted part of a favorite Sovereign Grace song for children. At the time I was thinking that surely if there was anyone who understood the Sovereignthy of God it was you and Abraham. Yet I withheld the card and it sits in my kitchen window. Somehow although we know and trust the Sovereignty of God in all things, to mention that at the time seemed to sound like it would minimize your pain and that was not our intent. So by God’s grace we found a verse, “When my heart is overwhelmed lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.” instead. I know that when we had our first child having gained an understanding of God’s Sovereignty gave me tremendous peace. In the sense that He has numbered all of their days, the weight is not all on my shoulders. So it seems to be so hard in that yes we know and rest and trust that He is good and Sovereign yet the pain is so great it by no means minimizes or takes that away. This series has been a tremendous help. We recently have had our own season of grief and I came across Romans 15:12 Rejoice with those who rejoice. weep with those who weep. The note below in my Bible says this, “The genuine unity of the body of Christ is especially evident in the empathy of it’s members in moments of high joy or deep sorrow.” which seems to be a piece of what you are saying. I have forwarded this onto to many grieving people, family and friends. Thank you for being so vulnerable. Jolee

    Reply
  • 21. Joe  |  April 28, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Molly,

    Thanks so much for these words. We Christians need them desperately. The Lord is granting you such wisdom to love others well. May we not be afraid of our messy lives.

    Cara

    Reply
  • 22. Alison  |  April 28, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Friends of mine lost a baby girl when she was five days old. The mother says one of the most helpful/beautiful things said to her was an older lady who gave her a big hug and simply said: “If I could take some of the pain away I would.”

    Reply
  • 23. Michelle  |  April 29, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I have never lost a child, but did lose my mother relatively young (I was 19). I’m not saying that those two equate, but some things seem to be similar–people didn’t know what to say. Really, I just wanted to be able to talk about and remember her, and more often than not, it ended in laughter, not tears. I also remember not being offended by people saying she had died or was dead, but I was afraid to use those words for fear that I might offend someone else. Strange, huh? Mostly, I’m not sad, but there are times when I really do miss her. I think (I hope) it has helped me when someone else is grieving. My general with sympathy cards, is the fewer words, the better (i.e. I’m sorry and I’m thinking of you), because they usually seem to blather on and on with platitudes that don’t really help, as you say. Thanks for letting me add my 2 cents, even if not exactly in the same vein.

    Reply
  • 24. proverbs31  |  April 29, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    You know, I never really thought about it that much, but I always buy blank cards so I can write in them. After thinking about it now, and listening to you write about it, you can believe I’ll think about it intentionally from now on.

    I’m always afraid of saying/writing the wrong thing. I have the tendency to put my foot in my mouth too often. I’m afraid of saying things like “As a mother, I can’t imagine what you are going through but I am praying for you,” because not having lost a child, I can’t imagine and can’t pretend to begin to imagine and don’t want to come across like I can.

    Amber

    Reply
  • 25. proverbs31  |  April 29, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    One more thing.. the main thing I’m getting out of this series is how long the pain lasts for the grieving mother, versus how long it lasts in the minds of others.

    I will forget about my friend’s pain and loss for a while, and then think about it, realize it has been several months, wonder how she’s doing, not want to bring it up because I’m sure that she’s beginning to do better by now and I don’t want to be the one to bring it up. When in reality, she probably still needs encouragement and comfort, and I never knew that before.

    Amber

    Reply
  • 26. Aimee  |  May 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you for this series. I pray that I will remember your advice when it counts.

    Reply
  • 27. How to Help Your Grieving Friend « The Pipers  |  May 5, 2008 at 9:43 am

    [...] Avoid the Flippant Comfort of Hallmark Answers [...]

    Reply
  • 28. we two  |  May 9, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    [...] element of our experience has been others’ responses when we share our struggles. I read this post today, and found it resonated with much of what I’d felt. We didn’t experience the loss [...]

    Reply
  • 29. Lori  |  May 12, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    I really appreciate these posts of yours concerning grief. This has been a major topic in my own life over the past year, although for a different reason. Experiencing grief has definitely made me aware of others hurts around me and what is helpful/unhelpful to them in their pain. Your posts are extremely helpful and insightful.
    Lori

    Reply
  • 30. Tiffany  |  May 31, 2008 at 7:07 am

    I could not agree more!

    Reply
  • 31. Holley  |  March 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Thank you so much for this powerful and insightful post. I’m…take a deep breath…a greeting card writer. I work for DaySpring, a Christian subsidiary of Hallmark.
    I’m also a woman who lost a baby almost three years ago. And a counseling intern who now works with grief support groups. Those two things have changed the way I write forever. When I put my pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, I remember that moment when new life slipped away from me. I see the faces of those who have let me enter into their sorrow.
    Grief is sacred ground and I’m humbled to walk there with my words. I do so carefully, prayerfully, and tearfully. That’s as it should be, as it always should have been.
    Keep telling people what you shared above. It’s essential. I’m going to share your post, and these comments, with others so they can better understand too.
    This is my first visit to your blog and I’m so glad to be here. I’m looking forward to reading more…

    Reply

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