Harold Kushner explains what NOT to say to a grieving family in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” using as an illustration the story of Job (the faithful, righteous, and pious man who loses his livestock, house, servants, and children, and is afflicted with boils all over his body). Having lost his own son, the rabbi knows all too well what helps and what hurts when trying to comfort a friend or relative.
The three friends who came to console Job got terrible scores, and here’s why, according to Kushner:
Because the friends had never been in Job’s position, they could not realize how unhelpful, how offensive it was for them to be judging Job, to be telling him he should not cry and complain so much. Even if they themselves had experienced similar losses, they would still have no right to sit in judgment of Job’s grief. It is hard to know what to say to a person who has been struck by tragedy, but it is easier to know what not to say.
Anything critical of the mourner (‘don’t take it so hard,’ ‘try to hold back your tears, you’re upsetting people’) is wrong. Anything which tries to minimize the mourner’s pain (‘it’s probably for the best,’ ‘it could be a lot worse,’ ‘she’s better off now’) is likely to be misguided and unappreciated. Anything which asks the mourner to disguise or reject his feelings (‘we have no right to question God’ ‘God must love you to have selected you for this burden’) is wrong as well.
Under the impact of his multiple tragedies, Job was trying desperately to hold on to his self-respect, his sense of himself as a good person. The last thing in the world he needed was to be told that what he was doing was wrong. Whether the criticisms were about the way he was grieving or about what he had done to deserve such a fate, their effect was that of rubbing salt into an open wound.
Job needed sympathy more than he needed advice, even good and correct advice. There would be a time and place for that later. He needed compassion, the sense that others felt this pain with him, more than he needed learned theological explanations about God’s ways. He needed psychical comforting, people sharing their strength with him, holding him rather than scolding him.
He needed friends who would permit him to be angry, to cry and to scream, much more than he needed friends who would urge him to be an example of patience and piety to others. He needed people to say, ‘Yes, what happened to you is terrible and makes no sense,’ not people who would say, ‘Cheer up, Job, it’s not all that bad.’ And that was where he friends let him down.
The phrase ‘Job’s comforters’ has come into the language to describe people who mean to help, but who are more concerned with their own needs or feelings than they are with those of the other person, and so end up only making things worse.