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Actions matter more for a grieving family than words

What Bible verse would you choose to share when visiting a family whose child has just died? Perhaps something about God comforting his people? Or something about the hope of the resurrection? (Maybe not.)

What about Philippians 4:8?

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

There have been 3 recent deaths in the TAFES community in Dar, and two of them were children. This was the passage that was shared at one visit to the bereaved parents. The funeral had passed, and the message was this: don’t dwell on the sadness or the unfairness or whatever other negative emotion is threatening to take hold; think about happier things.

This is a standard Tanzanian response to grief. One of the first cultural lessons we learned was that when someone dies you absolutely must visit the family, and that part of your task there is to distract them from their sadness with talk of happier things.

This approach seems dreadfully insensitive to us, perhaps even abortive of grief processes, prescribing and truncating uncomfortable emotions. It seems like telling people to stay outside the tunnel, because it’s actually a cave. But for Tanzanians, who are allergic to even a sniff of despair, the great need of the bereaved is to be encouraged and enlivened and spurred on. In fact, sit down and affirm to the bereaved how hard what they’re going through is, and they may feel that you are failing them.

And the visitors are not lacking in sympathy, despite the exhortation to happiness. Because sympathy is shown by your presence, not your words. You show up, and that shows that you care, that you know how difficult this time is.

And though using Bible verses like Philippians 4:8 might sound like the bereaved is not allowed to be sad, there are often ceremonies held to remember the dead, a year, 5 years, even 10 years after their death. The significance of the person is not over; they are remembered and celebrated. Neither are these private things that you do on your own; they are community events, ways of lifting one another up and being there for one another.

Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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