"If there's anything I can do … " I heard these words repeatedly years ago on that rainy day when we buried our 29-day-old baby boy, Christopher. Most people who said them acted so awkwardly, I felt as though I had to cheer them up.
But others were more at ease. One friend, Anne, quietly shared how she was encouraged by our reliance on God during Christopher's battle with a serious congenital heart defect. Another friend, Pam, e-mailed me, "I planted some violas for Christopher today, just outside my kitchen window." While neither gesture was extravagant or profound, both shone some light on a very dark day.
Why do some people seem to know what to say to someone in pain, while the rest of us flounder? The reality is, being close to someone who's heartbroken is difficult. We don't want to compound her pain by saying the wrong thing, yet we earnestly desire to help lessen her suffering, just like Jesus, who came to "comfort all who mourn" (Isaiah 61:2). When our heart breaks for someone else, we reflect God's sadness. How can we also reflect God's comfort? First we need to understand what comforting does—and doesn't—involve.
Comforting Isn't Explaining God's Will
When Judy's eight-year-old son, Kyle, was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection, a close relative wrote her to say God was punishing her for not attending church. Needless to say, the letter did little to encourage Judy.
The need to explain people's suffering is natural. Even Jesus was asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). Jesus replied that things aren't always so straightforward. In this case, the man's blindness was so "the work of God might be displayed in his life" (John 9:3). My friend Melissa confessed that when she first heard of Christopher's illness, she believed it was a result of my husband's previous involvement with role-playing games. But when she gave birth to a stillborn son a year later, she apologized for judging us.
Comforting Isn't Fixing the Problem
When Judith lost her daughter two weeks before her due date, many people assured her, "At least you know you can get pregnant." Marilyn, who lost her son when she was 21 weeks pregnant, was likewise told, "At least you have children at home." And my husband, who's a pediatrician, often heard, "Think of what a better physician you'll be after having such a sick child." Trying to cheer people up by telling them the character-building benefits of their suffering does little to comfort them. Those "benefits" can never compensate for the loss someone feels when a loved one dies.
Comforting Is Making Yourself Available
To comfort a friend is to focus on her feelings, not yours. Once we recognize we're helpless to explain the problem or to fix it, we can concentrate instead on meeting our friend's needs as best we can, perhaps in the following ways:
Be there. We printed 70 programs for Christopher's funeral, but we ran out long before the service began. The number of people who attended overwhelmed us. God used their presence to comfort us during that difficult time. When 9-year-old Randy died after an unsuccessful liver transplant, his mother, JoAnn, was moved when 16 intensive care nurses braved rainy, icy weather for 2 hours just to be at the funeral.
We often underestimate the impact our mere presence can have. But a hug, a pat on the arm, or attendance at a memorial service is often as valued as anything else.
Listen. Listening involves encouraging your friend to express her feelings. Pam Vredevelt, author of Empty Arms, says many women find it easier to suffer in silence because others won't initiate discussions about their loss. So if your grieving friend says, "I don't know how I'm going to get out of bed tomorrow," help her open up by asking her a question such as, "What's the scariest part of facing your day?" Then really listen to her answer. Try responding in a way that allows your friend to express what she really feels.
Tell how the person/situation affected you. When Christopher died, I was left with a huge hole in my life—while others' lives stayed the same. Telling a grieving person how you were affected by her loved one, even if it was only minimally, lets her know you feel her loss, too. Writing that memory on a card or in a letter is helpful. Over the last three years I've repeatedly turned to my cards for comfort.
Tell her how you've been praying. In June 1998, Brenda's husband, Rob, died suddenly in a car accident. They had three young daughters. The card Brenda found most uplifting explained in detail how her friend had been praying for Brenda and her daughters. When your prayers are wails, and despair is overwhelming, knowing others are lifting up the things you need can ease some of your burden.
Tell her your story. When Christopher died, I was touched by all the women who came to me with their own stories of "empty arms" and babies lost. Being able to share with someone, "I remember when I felt as though I couldn't breathe, let alone eat," helps a friend know she's not crazy, that others have also felt that kind of pain. Be cautious, however, about saying "I understand how you feel"; some people might find this presumptuous. Though every loss is different, you can share your stories to let people know they're not alone. This is the heart of the apostle Paul's urging to "comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Offer tangible help. In the days following Christopher's death, we were often asked, "Is there anything you need?" Few people, however, feel comfortable admitting they need help—even if they're grieving. Yet when my friend Raj said, "This Tuesday I'm bringing you and Keith dinner," we had no choice—and we were grateful. The more specific your offer, the more likely someone will accept it.
Follow through. One of the hardest things about losing someone is that eventually everything on the outside returns to normal, while on the inside you still feel torn apart.
Grief doesn't end when the funeral's over. Though there are days when we almost forget our pain, there are others when the reality of our loss hits us all over again, just as it did those weeks, months, or even years ago. With time those days grow fewer and further between, but they still occur.
To make a special difference in someone's life, follow through with your friends who mourn. Marilyn remembers with gratitude a woman from her church who sent her a card every few months, long after the others stopped coming.
Send a card on the anniversary of someone's death, or on what would have been a birthday or an anniversary. Or you could offer to babysit or prepare a special meal.
Don't worry about this reminding your friends of their loss. The grief will always be there. As one woman who lost a child remarked in Carol Staudacher's Beyond Grief: "It's as though people believe if you're not talking about your loss, you're not thinking about it. That's as ridiculous as assuming if you're not thinking about breathing, you're not doing it." JoAnn says that eight years after her son Randy's death, she still receives cards from several friends on the anniversary each March. It touches her to know others think of him, too.
Comforting someone who grieves can be scary, because it reminds us of our fears. We don't have to fix our friend's problem or say anything profound; comforting doesn't have to be onerous. Make yourself available to meet your friend where she is. In doing so, you can surround her with love at a time when she feels most alone.
Sheila Wray Gregoire, a freelance writer and home business owner, lives with her family in Ontario, Canada.
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