In the two years I’ve spent grieving the end of my marriage, some folks just haven’t known what to say to me.
Since I’ve also been that person who doesn’t know what to say when, for example, someone endures a divorce, or loses a loved one, or receives a diagnosis, or suffers from depression—I understand. A few years ago, when I lost someone in my extended family to divorce, I was absolutely tongue-tied. Should I say I was sorry, like if she had the flu? Should I tell her I missed not seeing her anymore? Was it tacky to do it via email? I had no idea. And yet I’m now painfully aware that these silences, even the most innocent lapses, do communicate something, even without ever intending to do so.
These silent voices have actively communicated, to me, absence.
Friends fear saying the wrong thing. Relatives may be mired in their own grief. Colleagues feel speechless. I get it. Certainly there are approaches and trite aphorisms to avoid, and I’m not suggesting that only the most eloquent Hallmark words will do.
I am suggesting that, whether you or I (friends, family, church members) feel particularly equipped for it, the job description for caring for someone who’s suffering—the secret to loving well—is to show up.
I don’t mean that you arrive unannounced at the home of the exhausted grieving mother who’s just stood for hours at the funeral home making awful small talk. I mean that you communicate—maybe in person but possibly with a card, letter, email, trained magical owl—anything that allows you to say that you’re aware your friend is suffering and you care. As I’ve listened to friends and acquaintances who’ve suffered all manner of grief, the words that consistently mean the most communicate one of two things: I am with you and I am for you.
I’m with You
One friend who gave birth to her son prematurely shared with me that what she most wanted in her darkest moment was for God to reassure her, It will be okay. Instead, she sensed God saying, I am here. That is the promise we hear through Isaiah’s words to a suffering people. We’re assured of God’s presence in life’s storms. And we bear God’s steadfast loving presence to others in pain when we represent God’s physical nearness to those who suffer simply by choosing to be with them.
A dozen years ago, while chatting with my friend, Julia, who’d lost her husband many years earlier, Julia shared with me the words that had meant the most to her during her darkest days. She said she’d received a notecard in the mail from dear friends that read, “We loved him, too.” Those four words convinced Julia that she wasn’t alone.