How to Avoid Speaking Carelessly to Widows

Coming alongside a suffering friend can feel like trying to hug a porcupine. It requires great caution and a certain amount of skill. Content, timing, and tone are just three elements a would-be comforter must get right. And let’s face it, this ministry of comfort has a high failure rate even among the most seasoned Christians.

In these encounters, the perfect storm happens when our tsunami of need collides with the helplessness of human friends. Though it has been five years since I buried my beloved, on any given day it feels like yesterday. As a widow, I have come to accept the excruciating reality that my wounds will never fully heal this side of heaven. Despite this prickly widow’s daunting pain, my church dared to draw near. Days and even weeks after Jim’s death, the Body of Christ brought me food, left me sweet messages, and filled my mailbox with notes of kindness. Inevitably, though, as time passed, most friends thought less about my pain. Humanly speaking, it must be this way, for no friend, however devoted, can carry another’s sorrow forever. Christ alone bears such wounds with unfailing strength.

Careless Words in the Face of Loss

When someone’s pain is directly in front of us, such as when we are at the graveside or hospital room, we choose our words with great care. And yet they are a mere scintilla of all we might say to a hurting friend in the months that follow. Words we say later to a widowed friend may be as life-giving (or not) as ones spoken on the first day of her loss. So, while it is important to know what to say to a hurting friend at her time of loss, it is equally important to keep in mind what you might unintentionally say to her months or even years later. An example . . .

A year after my husband died, I sat with friends. Together we had decorated, prayed, and planned for a ladies’ event. One friend glanced at her watch and grabbed her purse. “I’d better get a move on if I’m going to get dinner ready.” She started to leave but turned to me before she reached the door. “Say, you’re really lucky, you know? You don’t have to put a meal on the table.”

My friend had no idea she had sliced me in two on her way out the door. Honestly? Before my husband passed away, I had complained more than once about meal preparation. Now? I’d give anything to have to rush home to cook dinner for my husband.

Scripture says we will give an account for every careless word we say (Matt. 12:36). So how do we avoid careless words, particularly to those in pain? A few things come to mind.

Four Ways to Avoid Careless Words

1. Be slow to speak of another’s circumstance.

My sister at church has never known the experience of coming home to an empty house night after night for years. She didn’t realize she was looking at my circumstances through the distorted lens of her own experience. Likewise, I had no real understanding of what it was like to be a widow until I became one. It has taught me to ask more questions of my friends who are suffering before speaking into their plight.

2. Pray often about your speech.

Make it your habit to pray regularly about your words—all of them. We remember to pray before we make intentional visits to a friend, be it to comfort them, counsel them, or confront them. But our words in ordinary and unplanned encounters are often what our hearers never forget. Several times a week, I seek to pray, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Ps. 141:3).

3. Keep in mind you can’t fix it.

We women are fixers by nature, be it in wrapping our child’s skinned knee or entering a best friend’s pain, but we make poor saviors. When a friend is hurting, quick solutions, platitudes, or even Bible verses can feel superficial if offered immediately. It can minimize her pain and make her feel foolish for not recognizing obvious answers.

4. Keep short accounts.

We will invariably say the wrong thing to someone at the worst possible time. But the Holy Spirit can intervene. When He does, let’s be quick to respond. A week after my friend spoke of my dinner-free lifestyle, she called me. “I have been thinking about what I said earlier and . . .” There remains no sweeter way to have the last word than an apology.

A Word to the Widows

I would be remiss if I didn’t also speak to my fellow widows and offer a bit of confession. We need to recognize that our words can harm as well. Just like the prickly porcupine, we can make it impossible for friends to offer comfort. During my husband’s illness and subsequent passing, the anguish I felt sometimes formed words that stung my family and friends. As I sought to give grace to friends for their words, I needed to be mindful that I also needed forgiveness.

Pastor Dave Furman knows much of suffering. In his extremely helpful book Being There, he chronicles his journey in debilitating illness and offers practical theology on how to be a great friend to a suffering soul. He spoke often of his wife’s endurance as a comforter and gave her the last word—a convicting one:

Give grace to people who will not help you and people who say all the wrong things. I don’t know how much time I wasted pouting about people instead of praising God. I have critiqued the help that others have given me more than I have meditated on what Jesus has done for me.1

Amen and Amen. Christ is the ultimate comforter. Both friend and sufferer would do well to keep that in mind. I need to carry all my expectations of comfort to the One who bears all my grief and carries all my sorrows. What a glorious thought for the widow: all my days He will continue to do so, until the Great Day when He personally wipes away every tear from my eyes.

1 Dave Furman, Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 152.

About the Author

Gaye Clark

Gaye Clark

Gaye Clark is a nurse case manager for Parkridge Health Systems in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, Servants of Grace, and many other online media outlets, including Revive Our Hearts. She is the widow of … read more …

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