February 16, 2015

3 Things to Say to a Grieving Non-Christian

photo: Flickr/The British Museum
When a loved-one of a friend dies, words come hard. In the emotionally-charged aftermath of death, it’s tricky to know how to extend comfort without sounding stupid or, worse, hurting our neighbor more than she already is. We want to be lovingly proactive, emotionally sensitive, personally sympathetic, and theologically correct.

All in the space of a hug and a sentence.

It’s a tall order, and the complexity compounds when we are comforting a non-Christian who is grieving the death of another non-Christian. With no understanding of the soul, no hope of eternity, and no trust in Christ’s return, our co-workers and neighbors can’t receive the same comfort we’d offer a believing brother or sister.

What do we say to the pagan co-worker who is mourning the death of her Hindu best friend? How do we approach our nice, secular neighbor whose even nicer, secular wife just died? What words can we offer the agnostic friend who just watched her atheist mom succumb to cancer?

Recently I read an article by Stanley Gale, “How Do We Comfort the Non-Christian in Grief?” (H/T The Aquila Report) There, Dr. Gale helpfully lays out the theological landscape of death. Standing on his foundation, then, I want to build a bit further and make three practical suggestions. Let's call it: How (Exactly) We Can Comfort the Non-Christian in Grief.

1. Acknowledge That Death Is Very, Very Bad

Death for the Christian and the non-Christian alike is the terrible fall-out from the Fall. While Christians should grieve with hope (1Thess. 4:13), even we still grieve. When your non-Christian neighbor experiences a death, you can sympathize with the real horror of a life ended and a relationship severed. What’s more, in a culture where death is either downplayed and ignored or set in the realm of dignified personal choices, you may be the only one willing to acknowledge its awful and inevitable impact. You can say:

I’m sorry. This is really hard.
This is so sad. I know you will miss her.
It’s okay to cry. Death is terrible.

If you openly lament death, you may have opportunity later to walk your friend backwards to sin—whose wages death is—and forward to Christ, whose gift is eternal life (Rom. 6:23).

2. Affirm That Human Beings Are Precious

Just as only Christians truly appreciate the sadness of death, only Christians can fully affirm the amazing privilege and value of life. We understand that human beings are more than a collection of cells but are actually image-bearers of the most-high God, knit together by him in the secret places, and given unique abilities, interests, and experiences. Though your non-Christian neighbor doesn’t understand all of this, you do. And in contrast to a culture where human life is cheap, you can testify to its value. You can say:

She was an amazing violinist.
He was so cheerful—he always brought a smile to my morning!
Her work with those school kids was remarkable.

Your valuing of life may one day lead to an introduction to the Lord and giver of life, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

3. Commend the Loving Actions of Your Grieving Neighbor

Knowing that all good things come from the Lord, Christians can affirm common grace when we see it. The deeds of your grieving non-Christian neighbor have no saving merit (just as your own deeds have none), but Jesus says that even ungodly people can and do love others (Luke 6:32). We know that it is God who enables non-Christians to be kind and generous and faithful. And you can affirm these things by saying:

You took such good care of your mom at the end. I know you loved her.
He often told me how much your friendship meant to him.
I always liked seeing you out shooting baskets with your son after work.

And maybe someday these kind deeds will be the beginning of a conversation about the kindness of our God—revealed in the giving of his Son to die in our place.


  1. Replies
    1. We had a 12-year-old girl from our congregation die a little more than a week ago from complications with pneumonia. She professed Christ as her Savior as do her parents. There was such comfort in all God's promises to His people as we walked with the family (are walking!), the congregation, and the community through such a terrible loss—and as my husband preached the sermon. When I read your post, it brought forth that yet-unarticulated thought, "What about a grieving non-Christian?" What comfort can you give if it is not rooted in Christ and in the promise of heaven? So, like I said earlier in the week: Wow. Very helpful.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you for raising the question and laying the foundation!


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