Dietrich Bonhoeffer on What Not To Say at Funerals

As I looked for pictures for this post, I decided something: there are entirely too many pet sympathy cards.

Maybe it’s just the hard-hearted anti-animal lover in me, but I found this card (and others like it) ridiculous:

Sympathy card1I’m a terrible person for laughing at sympathy cards, especially because I know for some people, the passing of a pet into the Great Kennel Beyond is a big deal. But still. “Paw prints on your heart”?

Also, anything with angels is fair game to be looked at with a smirk.

Angel

We don’t become angels in heaven, people. That’s not a thing.

And this one:

Sympathy 2

While I love the artwork of this card, I feel like fireflies are a bad illustration the text, because it reminded me of those mean kids who squished them on the sidewalk to leave a glowing trail.

And don’t even get me started on the Lion-King-cosmology represented in this card.

Sympathy 3

These are the exceptions to the rule, though. Most of the cards I found were fairly general: “With Sympathy” (sometimes modified by “Sincere,” “Heartfelt,” or “Deepest” for those emotional people out there) in script font with either flowers, butterflies, or leaves in the background. Most sympathy cards look alike, and are similarly vague.

I think that’s because we’re never quite sure what to say when people die, much less what to write in a card. It’s a hard thing, and maybe if the background is soothing enough and the words inside poetic enough and the verse at the bottom hopeful enough, we can avoid the awkwardness of putting our feelings into words and just sign our names.

At least, I’ve had that thought before. And it’s true that sometimes what people need most during a time of loss is silence—someone to grieve with them and listen to them.

Christians sometimes feel pressure to fill up that white space with (deep, sincere, heartfelt) assurances of faith and hope and heaven. Our theology of life after death will fit neatly in the space left by generic greeting card messages. Our words of comfort will fill the awkward silence after the funeral. Our “at leasts” and “somedays” will soothe the doubts and fears and heartbreaking agonies of a world that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Except they sometimes don’t.

Whenever I don’t know what to write in sympathy cards or don’t know what to say at funerals, I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a German theologian and pastor, he came from a long line of people who were not known for being economical with their words. (German theologians don’t write books; they write tomes.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Yet this is what he had to say when one of his students, a young man, died in battle: “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We have comfort…but it is not in the fact that “At least you have other children” or “It was his time to go” or “Heaven needed another angel.”

Sometimes even the promise of Easter is a dim encyclopedia knowledge when you’re at a gravesite. And that’s okay. Just like our body reacts violently to viruses that are foreign to it, so we react violently to the things we know are not supposed to be here: suffering, death, grief, goodbyes.

When someone you know is experiencing loss of any kind, don’t be afraid that God needs you to defend him and his actions and make everything all right again.

Leave the gaps open: the margins of the sympathy cards, the silence at the funeral, the pauses in the “want to talk about it?” conversations. They are the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Be present in them—just as God is—but don’t try to fill them.

What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Suffering from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

7 comments

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my life long heroes in the Faith. Physical contact and silence are definitely the best for sharing grief.

  2. An intriguing article. The video also provided a helpful reminder, as one of my friends has had some horrid stuff happen lately. I can sympathise with the anger a pained person feels towards these verbal attempts at rapidly comfort, as it’s infuriating to have one’s pain dismissed as inconsequential, though I still have difficulty with knowing which route to take when trying to help others. On one occasion, though, I did have a friend help me in a positive way when I was in distress. They allowed me time, free reign to speak or be silent, and possibly reign to be angry at God (don’t remember that one clearly). Their words were few and kind, either assuring their love or offering help. They mostly just sat with me and listened, giving hugs periodically. I still remember that help they gave. I would have to agree with Granpa Green’s perscription.

    As a side note, thank you, Amy for continuing to post your blogs. They are indeed quite interesting. Have a good night, morning, day, and evening, everyone.

  3. I sometimes stumble with words, which means I also sometimes have trouble with keeping from putting a hand on someone’s shoulder. I’m not a touchy feely kind of person, but other people do not like to be touched, at all, even when it’s a respectful, emphatic kind of touch. *sigh*

  4. Hi, Amy.
    I agree about we are not gonna be angels or stars…
    However, I say to you, a little bunny rabbit left paw prints on my heart. Forever!
    Blessings.
    Klaus

  5. I stated the following at my sister’s internment a year ago today. “The Bible speaks little of God needing more Christians ‘to die to join his choir’ or that ‘He took someone in death’. But the Bible says that Satan is the Father of Lies and Death. It is God’s will that we have life abundant. In I Corinthians 15:6 and following, there is a lovely interchange between God the Father to his Son.” Sit, while I make your enemies a footstool.” And the Father throws Satan into the Lake of Fire and casts the Lake into Hell. For His son Jesus Christ. That’s just a taste of how much God hates Death and Satan. I hate Satan and he hates all of you. But one day–the Devil will get a just punishment. My sister and I will cheer. Until then, may our love for one another drive Satan insane and out of our lives.

  6. I know it’s been awhile since this was written but I just read it. All I usually say on sympathy cards is that they are in my prayers. if I know for a fact they are Christian I may add that my prayer is for God to give them comfort. if I am very close I pray that God will use me as a vessel to hold the overflow of grief that they feel.

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