Book Review: What Grieving People Wish You Knew, by Nancy Guthrie
Nancy Guthrie, What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts). 192 pps, $12.99.
Nancy Guthrie’s new book What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) is a personal, practical, and pastoral read. Many Christians and church leaders spend time interacting with grieving people or equipping their congregations to care for those around them who are grieving. Consequently, this book is especially pertinent for pastors.
The book is based upon Nancy Guthrie’s experience in trials as well as a survey conducted of others who’ve experienced loss. She quotes extensively from these survey responses to help make her points by using the words of others.
The book is eminently practical and personal, divided into seven chapters that discuss the nitty-gritty of interacting with grieving individuals.
1. What to Say (and What Not to Say)
Guthrie pointed out how silence amidst others’ suffering is difficult because it essentially denies another’s suffering and loss (20). She made other practical points such as not comparing your suffering to someone else’s, not being in a hurry, listening well, and avoiding potentially painful questions. For example, if a friend’s son committed suicide, Nancy urged readers to not ask for specific details of his death.
2. Typical Things People Say (And What You Can Say Instead)
Guthrie spent the first half of the chapter enumerating a number of common yet unhelpful things people say: “I know just how you feel” . . . “You’ll be fine”. . . “You can have more children” . . . “Well, at least …” . . . “Don’t you think it is time to move on?” . . . “I guess God just needed him in heaven more than we needed him here.”
In the second half, she outlined some helpful ways to approach those suffering. For example, after the death of a loved one, she recommended sharing positive memories about the person who died to the individual who’s mourning the loss. Throughout the book, Guthrie emphasized the importance of communicating the value of the person who was lost to the individual who is grieving.
3. Assumptions We Make That Keep Us Away (And Why We Should Simply Show Up)
She also outlined a number of unhelpful assumptions that keep us from engaging with those who are grieving. In this chapter, she gave a one sentence summary of her message and a pithy encapsulation of engaging with those grieving: “If I had to boil down the message of this entire book to just two words, these two would probably cover it: show up” (69). Guthrie then proceeded to discuss common reasons people use to avoid being present such as not knowing the person suffering very well or being unsure about exactly what to say.
4. What To Do (And What Not To Do)
Having previously spoken about some helpful and unhelpful words, this chapter focuses on deeds. It’s filled with specific examples of things one can do to help those grieving. For example, she advocated listening more than talking, letting some things go that are said which you disagree with, leaving a message, sending a note, marking your calendar to remember the anniversary of a death, or helping with a financial gift in memory of someone who passed away.
5. Social Media and Grief (When The ‘Like’ Button Just Seems Wrong)
The fifth chapter dealt with the question of how to interact with those grieving via social media. She argued that even the small step of liking the post of one grieving publicly can go a long way in showing compassion. She contended that “your silence sounds like disapproval and perhaps even disgust and creates distance that is difficult to overcome” (126).
6. Let’s Talk About Talking About Heaven (And Hell)
Before discussing the specific theology of heaven and how to relate it to those grieving the loss of a loved one, Guthrie made an observation that’s certainly proved true in my experience: “One of the gifts given to us in the death of someone we love is that we think more about eternal things. We are awakened to the reality that this life is not all there is” (128). She then proceeded to offer a few thoughts on heaven: (1) We cannot know the full reality of the interior of another person’s life (131). (2) God always does right (132). (3) God’s very nature is that of mercy (133). She stated that despite society’s sentimental culture toward heaven, it cannot be assumed that everyone is with God eternally in heaven (129). Further, she provided a helpful warning about turning to books written by others purporting to know more about heaven than Scripture reveals.
7. A Few Quick Questions (And Answers)
In the final chapter, the book tackled a few practical questions such as how to weave Scripture into your comfort of others without sounding like you’re preaching at them. In addition, she discussed thinking through whether one grieving is depressed or simply experiencing a healthy sense of loss.
There are many strengths to What Grieving People Wish You Knew, but three in particular stand out: practical, personal, and pastoral.
This book is eminently practical as it contains tangible examples of things to do and say, while at the same time mentioning things we should avoid doing or saying. Moreover, the countless stories she retold through the quotations from survey participants offered a wide variety of experiences. This allows readers to latch on to different stories that more closely match their own.
In addition, Guthrie’s simple style means anyone can pick up this book and benefit from it immediately. There is no advanced knowledge or prior reading required. A teenager could read it in a few hours and find it helpful.
Lastly, the work also covers a lot of questions that people have while interacting with those grieving. While her book doesn’t seek to be comprehensive, it does address a broad spectrum of questions.
Guthrie’s book is also deeply personal both for herself and those reading it. She told her story of losing two children—and it is heartbreaking to read. The book is unavoidably emotional, especially if loss is on your mind or you personally resonate with the experiences mentioned.
As I read the book, much of what Guthrie wrote connected with personal experiences of my wife and me after our son unexpectedly died in the third trimester. For example, my wife felt hurt when people awkwardly avoided her likely because they didn’t know what to say. I was deeply touched when people wrote cards and gave gifts in our son’s name.
As an aside, Guthrie’s book Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow (Tyndale, 2009) served as one of the best books I read on suffering after our son died. What Grieving People Wish You Knew is similarly filled with humility and grace. Guthrie pointed out how at times in her life, she made many of the same mistakes she exhorted against. Consequently, her book extends a lot of grace to those who have done similarly.
Guthrie’s book is also pastoral. She’s clearly concerned to shepherd those grieving, showing genuine care for them while pointing them to hope in Christ. Similarly, she shows sensitivity to the realities of those suffering.
Does Not Emphasize Enough That Everyone is Different and Grieves Differently
While Nancy mentioned that “what is helpful and meaningful to one person may be unwanted or even annoying to another” (25) and “there are no one-size-fits-all words or deeds” (25), this point is not made enough throughout the book. Given the proclivity for formulas and three-step solutions that most of us possess, it would have been good to remind people more regularly that we need much wisdom to understand the best ways to interact with someone suffering. While Nancy’s book isn’t intended to be a manual but rather a set of guiding principles, it would be worth emphasizing this point more.
Too Focused on People Grieving Loss of Loved Ones
While this type of loss is the situation I found myself in, serving in a local church reminds me the breadth of loss is wide and the depth of grief is deep. While avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, Guthrie’s book could have given greater attention to situations that don’t involve death: people grieving the loss of health as debilitating long-term diseases set in, those reeling from unwanted divorce, the after-effects of being abused, the list goes on and on.
Nonetheless, What Grieving People Wish You Knew is a helpful book for just about anyone. While it’s a short read, the emotional and spiritual work discussed in the book will last a lifetime.