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General Interest Reading

How Not to Minister to the Hurting

by Joe McKeever

[Editor's Note: Many of us are at a loss as to what to say to someone who has gone through a terrible tragedy or episode. This article will help us to get some hints.]

This may be the most unbelievable article I've ever posted.

You will not believe what some people say to a bereaved parent or the family member of someone tragically injured.

Recently, while talking to Holly and her mother, I began to pick up on some truly bizarre things people said to them after Holly's young-adult brother Seth's tragic automobile accident that left him severely disabled, completely helpless, and almost without the ability to communicate. Holly describes his condition as "a low level of consciousness due to a profound brain injury."

Frankly, I was overwhelmed by some of the things people have said to this family. I had no idea people could be so thoughtless, so clueless, so heartless--all in the name of the Lord and ostensibly, with the best of intentions.

After our visit, I asked if Holly and Mary--Seth's sister and mother, respectively--could write down some of the things people have said to them over the several years Seth has been in this sad condition (our discussion centered around the strange comments--that's where our greatest teaching for this piece focuses--but at the end of this article, Holly shares some of the helpful words that were spoken).

My single contribution to the discussion was something our family pastor back in Alabama told me. When his teenage son was killed in a motorcycle accident, the family and community were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone was genuinely concerned. Most people said kind and supportive things. However, a few comments shocked even the pastor.

One lady told the bereaved pastor, "I know exactly how you feel. When my son went off to college, I thought my heart would break." The pastor smiled and thanked her, but the thought that filled his mind was, "Well, did your son come back from college? Because my son is never coming back!"

Holly wanted me to emphasize that all the Christian folks who have said these things to us have good intentions. Everyone genuinely thinks they're offering something helpful. Holly is probably more charitable than I am. Not everyone who deigns to speak for God has the best interests of others at heart.

What Not To Say

Here they are, in the order in which she sent them along....

1. "If you just had enough faith, your son would be healed."

The variations on this theme were endless. One wonders where people came up with the notion that God will heal everyone who has faith enough. Do they think the hospitals are populated only by the sinful and faithless?

2. "God wants to heal your brother. It's your parents' fault that he does not sit up in that bed, completely restored, because they will not get rid of their doubts and have faith!"

Holly said, "The poor guy. Apparently, God really wants to heal Seth, but His hands are tied because the victim's parents don't have enough faith!"

If the Lord healed everyone of everything, no one would ever die. The story of Job in the Old Testament clearly speaks to this idea that suffering results from sin. Now all we have to do is get the Lord's people to read the Bible.

3. "You need to have faith, not that your son can be healed, but to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is already healed, and he will be."

Holly says, "Now that one just does not begin to make sense!" I respond, "You haven't been listening to the right faith healers on television, my sister."

The "name it and claim it" philosophy holds that when you believe it strongly enough, that will make it a reality. The best answer to this shallow heresy is: "Preach it in Haiti. I'd like to see those people prosper. Then I promise you I'll believe."

4. "What do you think God is trying to teach you through this?"

This is the fix-it mentality. People see a tragedy and want to make it right. Never mind that they are not capable and are giving counsel far out of their field of expertise, assuming they have one.

5. "Remember, pastor--" (Oh! Did I tell you that Holly and Seth's father is a pastor?) "It says in Romans that 'God works all things together for good.'"

The family wishes they had a nickel for each time they've heard that. Holly comments that it falls under the category of "trite but true."

6. "You know, you're really lucky. I've heard that being an empty-nester is really hard. Now, you'll never have to go through that!"

The reason he will never leave home is that Seth will remain completely dependent on his parents' care the rest of his life. His life-expectancy (I asked about this) is around 15 years, half of which he has already lived in this condition.

7. "You know, you're really lucky. I was watching a TV show last night that said those who use their brains every day are less likely to become senile in old age. So taking care of your son is keeping you young and sharp."

I know, I know. You're doubting that anyone actually said something this stupid. They did.

8. "Here's why I think God did this."

The family member on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom thinks to him/herself, "Really? You presume to know the mind of God?"

Two explanations as to "why God did this" stand out in Holly's mind:

a) "Your son is a sacrificial lamb, showing the rest of us how to live."

This person's God seems to be the epitome of cruelty.

b) "He was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. So, God must have looked into the future and seen that he would raise a family and teach them not to wear their seatbelts and one day they would all have been killed in an accident. So, God did this to spare his future family."

That one leaves me speechless.

9. "You must feel glad that where your son is now"--in a semi-vegetative state-- "he can no longer sin!"

You know, the ability to sin is not the worst thing in the world. The inability to sin (or anything else!) at all is far, far worse.

10. (In response to Mary's saying she was exhausted from the 24/7 routine of caring for Seth, including rising in the middle of the night, every night, someone said:) "Well, you know, it's not such a big deal. Lots of people who have newborn babies at home have to do the same thing."

There are times when we do well just to keep our mouths shut and say nothing. Clearly, this was one of those times for a friend of the Esvelt family. Sadly, he/she chose not to take that precious opportunity.

11. "I would like to pay to have (a certain faith healer) come and pray over your son. I'm confident that would heal him. In the meantime, here is a stack of that preacher's materials to look over."

At what point does a parent violate their own beliefs and convictions in order to be willing to do anything that would bless their needy child? When I was dealing with my own bout with cancer (2004/2005), and people would say they were praying for me, "Even though we're not of the same religion," I would half-seriously reply that "I'm accepting all prayers." That's one thing. But welcoming into your home a so-called "faith healer" is another altogether.

12. "If your son would just stop raging in his heart against God, then God would be free to heal him."

Holly replies (at least in her heart), "Now, how do you know what a guy in a coma is thinking?"

This one makes me angry. I think at this point I would have shown the visitor the door and ordered him off my property. Enough is enough. And, as Jerry Lewis used to say, "And too much is plenty!"

13. "I know your brother is going to wake up! People wake up from comas all the time. I saw it on television last week!"

Holly again wishes she had a nickel for every time someone has thrown that one their way. She thinks, "Wouldn't it be nice if real life always resolved itself at the end of a 30-minute time slot, just like on television."

14. "We want to be your family . We want to be there for you, every week. Twice a week if you need it."

The people who said that never returned or even inquired as to how Seth and the family were doing.

15. "You know, it's been 7 years. You really need to get over this and move on."

That's pretty hard to do when your loved one is lying in the next room, requiring 24/7 personal care.

16. "I want to come visit your son, but I just can't. You see, I don't do well in hospitals." Or, this variation: "I just can't handle seeing him like this. I want to remember him the way he was."

What goes through your mind on hearing this is: "Maybe you need to get over yourself, friend. Think of what it must be like to be in his condition. Think how much it might mean to him to hear the voice of a friend."

17. "I know how you feel." "I know what you're going through."

Answer: No, you don't. The only person who knows is one who has been there themselves.

18. "We're on our way home from a workshop on faith healing, and we'd like to stop by and pray over your brother!"

This couple left with a rather disappointed air when the new techniques they had learned failed to work.

19. "The other night we stopped by the hospital after everyone was gone. I prayed healing over your brother, called him forth, and said, 'Young man, arise!'"

They seemed to feel a certain satisfaction over having done this. One wonders why, since Seth continued to lie there.

20. "I want to come and pray for your son." "I want to come and minister to you."

They stayed an additional three hours during which time they talked about themselves, their kids' activities, politics, and last Friday night's football game.

Holly observes, "People like this genuinely believe they mean it when they say they want to come pray for you and/or minister to you. But what they really mean is they want to sit and have someone listen to them talk all afternoon."

Such people leave thinking--as a family member actually heard a woman say in church one day--"Wow, I really ministered to them today! It must have been such a bright spot in their sad situation, to hear my cheerful, fascinating conversation."

On another occasion, a woman who was known for staying all day became insulted and then rude when the family declined her offer to visit the hospital in a time of crisis.

Holly notes, "Here is a hint for anyone who is considering visiting a sick friend or one in a crisis: Unless you are specifically asked otherwise, limit your visit to a half hour at the most. They have enough to deal with without having to pretend all afternoon to be interested in what your kids are doing."

Holly says a half-hour. I'd say more like 10 or 15 minutes max. I'm recalling walking into a hospital room where a man from the church sat visiting the patient, also a member of our church. When he got up to leave, I said, "Hey, don't let me rush you off." He protested that I wasn't, that it was time to leave. After the door closed behind him, the patient said, "Preacher, I'm so glad you came. He's been here a solid hour." On another occasion, a patient told me, "Pastor, don't tell the church I'm in here. They'll visit me to death. I'd like some quiet."

21. "I am sending you a hankie that has been prayed over by (a certain South American faith healer), who has been known to raise the dead!"

Another said, "I saw your story on the web site and I am sending you a special 1-inch square of fabric to put under his pillow, which will heal him. I'll get back in touch with you in a couple of weeks to hear about all the improvements."

The gullibility of some people knows no bounds.

Now... Having said all that, Holly notes that many people were wonderful and said things that genuinely did bless and encourage them:

* "I'm so sorry." When in doubt, that's the best thing to say.
* "Can I pray with you?" Prayer is always welcome.
* "Here are some meals to put in your freezer and use when you need them."

Holly suggests, "Rather than asking 'Let me know if there is anything I can do to help'--which will likely be turned down, as no one ever wants to trouble another person--why not say: 'I am going to _______ for you.' Perhaps it's to bring a meal, give you a gas card for all those trips to the hospital, or harvest your garden." She adds, "I've been guilty of it myself. It's a way to sound like you care without really having to do anything, because you know they probably won't take you up on it."

I suspect we're all guilty of this "If there is anything I can do" routine. Holly's parents--and so many in their situation--will almost never call someone and say, "Okay, you said to call you if you could do anything, so we need you."

One young man who knew that Pastor Esvelt's church service ended later and was farther away than his, took it upon himself every Sunday to drive to the care center and sit with Seth until the family arrived. He held Seth's hand, prayed aloud for him, and talked with him. Holly says, "We will never forget that kindness."

* "I would like to offer to stay with your son for an afternoon so you can get out for a few hours."

Holly notes that Seth's longtime best friend comes by every time he's in town. He helps with projects around the house. Another friend, a firefighter, regularly stops to chat with Seth and exchange theological ideas with Pastor Esvelt. "Both are others-centered," Holly notes, "and are true ministers to us."

She adds, "It was amazing how God prompted so many of His people to meet specific needs at just the right time, over and over again."

A final observation or two

Let me say again that I had to ask Holly and her mother Mary to write these down for me so I could share them here. They are not negative people who go around keeping account of wrongs. Quite the opposite, in fact. When you meet this family for the first time, you are blown away by the victory in Christ that radiates from them. You like them and want to know them better. They are incredible witnesses for the Lord and wonderful examples of what His Spirit can do in the hearts and lives of believers enduring difficult times.

So, why did I ask for this list? Because you and I are like their friends. We are the ones going into hospital rooms, nursing homes, rehab centers, and funeral homes. We greet families whose hearts are breaking and whose lives are reeling from the blow they have just taken. And we hope to have a word of comfort for them.

A word of comfort. That's our goal. To say something or do something that will lift their spirits and bless their hearts and ease their pain.

Sometimes we learn more from seeing the wrong way someone did a thing than by all the instruction in the world on how to do it right. That's the reason for this article today.

We welcome your comments at the end. And since we seem to be making a collection of "how not to comfort," if someone used a memorable line on you during a trying time, tell us what it was.

We'll try not to say it to someone else.

Let's conclude with the single best thing to say in almost all situations--a house fire, a job loss, the death of a friend, whatever. No one has ever improved on this line:

"I'm so sorry."

Administered with a hug.

Repeat that line if you wish. You can even add, "My heart is so sad for you." But then stop. You said enough. Quit talking, even though the urge is welling up inside you. Squelch it. You have gotten it perfect.

Now, be quiet.

About the Author: Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at

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