Offering comfort can be as much about what you don’t say as what you do.
I ran to the grocery store to pick up steaks. Passing through the floral section, I impulsively grabbed a bouquet of roses, anticipating the most memorable dinner of my life. After three years of infertility treatment, I could finally announce to my husband Gary that he would have a new name—Dad.
We revealed our secret to our delighted families. “Finally!” everyone squealed. And we began anticipating how our lives would change.
Yet early one morning, I felt pain and knew something was wrong. For the next twenty-four hours we waited for test results, pleading with God to spare our child’s life. By the next evening, a miscarriage had crushed our dreams. Repeatedly in the hours that followed, Gary wrapped his arms around my shaking shoulders and rested his cheek against mine as I choked back sobs.
That was eleven years ago. As the years passed, this scene repeated itself in our home many times. The only difference was that with each loss, our unbridled sense of optimism turned into caution and emotional distancing.
The wait for our daughter Alexandra (who joined our family in 1995 through the miracle of adoption) spanned a decade which included years of invasive medical treatment, multiple miscarriages, and three failed adoptions.
I always hesitate to tell my story because I don’t like to engage in the Suffering Olympics—going for the gold in competing over who has hurt the most. We’ve had some pain in our lives, but most people have endured worse. Nevertheless, during our decade of struggle, I began to take note of what did and didn’t help when others offered words or gestures of comfort. I still make mistakes as I try to help those in pain, but here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
First, be silent, and listen. Our quiet presence is often the greatest comfort. My co-author, Dr. Bill Cutrer, an obstetrician/ordained minister, shares how during his first year of medical practice, he sat with a couple who lost a baby at twenty-three weeks. Feeling at a total loss for words, he sat in silence and wept with them: “I felt surprised when they later thanked me profusely saying, ‘You said just the right words.’”
What words? I wondered.
Precisely. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint,” wrote poet Marianne Moore more than a century ago. He words still ring true today.
Silence keeps us from asking nosey questions or saying, “You’ll get over it,” “Time heals all wounds,” or “At least . . .” Other unhelpful statements include, “It must be God’s will,” “I know exactly how you feel,” or any statement starting with “Maybe God . . . ”
A pastor who suffered multiple losses over a period of six months said, “The most significant thing I learned was that the high-sounding, through true, theological axioms sound so trite, and are immensely irritating. Either God brings those thoughts to your mind with His comfort, or they seem of little help.” Job’s friends did well for the first week when they sat and said nothing. They got into trouble only after they opened their mouths.
Often our “ministry of presence,” just showing up, is all that’s needed. However, we must balance this with the “ministry of absence.” After his wife’s hospitalization, one husband said, “People should plan to leave quickly from all visits. Give the patient a chance to say, ‘No, please stay,’ instead of thinking, ‘I wish this person would leave.’” We must let those who are grieving be the ones to decide who stays, how long they stay, and whether to remain silent or talk. They may long for company. Yet they may also wish for time alone without anyone scrutinizing their actions or words.
If you speak, keep it simple. Note that only one of these is longer than five words: “I’m sorry.” “I’m here if you want to talk.” “I feel sad for you.” “How are you doing?” “May I hug you?” “It’s okay to cry.” “I love you.”
Also, touch them. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, take your friend’s hand when you tell her you’re sorry, or give her a warm handshake, a pat on the back, a shoulder hug, or a bear hug. If in doubt, simply ask, “May I hug you?” Martin Luther wrote, “We are all little Christs—when we touch, He touches.”
Next, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Notice that the apostle Paul, when writing this admonition, did not say, “Tell stories to those who weep,” (“I know someone who had that surgery and she . . .”). Nor does he say to instruct, share a verse with, cheer up, or even be strong for those who weep.
“Those who cry with me provide the greatest relief,” I wrote in my journal during one of our losses. “With them I feel free to express emotion, so my tears can flow freely.” When a friend’s father died, he told me, “Weeping needs an echo.” Shared weeping shows others that we love them enough to let their pain wound us. It also assures them that they aren’t foolish for “getting so emotional.”
By accepting their honest feelings we can show hurting people we care. This goes beyond “allowing them to cry.” The more difficult part for many of us may be letting them vent anger. Anger in its various forms is part of the grief process. It can range from irritability to loud outbursts.
God filled His Word with stories about people of faith who questioned or got angry when life was difficult. Moses wondered why God was so hard on him, requesting “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin” (Numbers 11:15). Once Moses expressed himself, God came to his aid and met his need. We must trust Him to do the same for those we love.
Next, let them know that their mourning is justified. Statements such as “That must be hard,” or “That’s terrible,” are far better than, “It’s not so bad,” or “How can you feel that way?” When my uncle died suddenly, the most comforting thing anyone said to me was, “That stinks. That really stinks.”
And don’t forget to pray. This may seem obvious, yet a U.S News and World Report poll revealed that the average believer spends less than two minutes in prayer daily. The average pastor fares little better. Apparently, we believe in prayer, but we fail to pray. We must ask for God’s wisdom to guide us through the mine fields of others’ volatile feelings. And we must also recognize that the family of God can minister some comfort, but in times of deepest loss, the only One who can truly console is the God of the family.
Also, if anyone is going to offer spiritual encouragement, let it be the hurting person. When someone having a great day says “Trust God” to someone in pain, it sounds like a heartless accusation. It also robs the suffering believer of the opportunity to testify about God’s grace. It’s the comforter’s job to weep; it’s the hurting person’s job, when he or she is ready, to share about God’s sufficiency. Too often it happens the other way around. Would-be comforters leave people weeping after “bearing witness” to them that God is sufficient.
“God allows bad to happen, but makes good from it,” wrote Patti, who has endured two rapes. “It took me a long time to conclude that I’m not going to know why it happened, but ultimately God’s love and power are greater than those men.” Patti’s statement about God’s character has greater impact because the person uttering it has been in the fire.
Another important way to express compassion is through initiating. It’s nearly impossible for the person in pain to find energy to initiate. If you want to help, don’t say “Call me if you need anything.” Instead, make a specific offer: “What groceries can I pick up for you?” “Could I mow your lawn?” or “May I bring dinner tonight?” (Be sure to ask for preferences in food and time of delivery. Disposable pans help too.) After my first miscarriage, a friend from church baked us a chocolate cake. “I didn’t want to send a plant or plaque which might later remind you of your loss,” he told us.
Even if you hardly know them, go ahead and send a card, flowers, or tickets for a night out. One grieving man wrote, “I appreciated e-mail. I could read it when I felt like it and react freely. It’s okay to yell at your computer.”
Caring for others takes energy, effort, and patience. Days may turn to months and even years, making it seem that the pain will never end. But “suffer long” with them.
Two weeks after her son drowned, Amanda wept openly. She told a friend, “Already people act like they think I should be getting over it.”
“I was talking with a friend who lost her husband less than a year ago,” says author Madeleine L’Engle. “I told her, ‘I miss my husband just as much today.’ She said, ‘I’m not sure I like that.’ I said, ‘Yes, you do. You don’t want to stop missing him.’”
Finally, a note of caution: Never use others’ pain to gain something for yourself, not even a good feeling about reaching out.
People facing significant losses are often thrown into the arena of attention. If you are called upon to help, keep your observations to yourself, being careful never to use the information you’ve gained to prove you’re “in the know.”
Sometimes it’s easy to use others’ pain to demonstrate subtly how great we are, like sweeping into a meeting and announcing, “Sorry I’m late; I was counseling someone who had a marital crisis,” rather than quietly slipping into our seats. We must pray for the humility never to use anyone else’s need as a workshop, as Dr. Eugene Peterson puts it, “to cobble together makeshift, messianic work that inflates our importance and indispensability.”
Though we may want desperately to take the pain away, we know we can’t. However, in a variety of ways, we can assure people through our actions that God loves them and we do, too. The job requires only a few simple pieces of equipment: two ears, feet that initiate, silent tongues, tear ducts, tender eyes, soft shoulders, and loving arms.
Reprinted from Insight’s Bible Companion for Women (Insight for Living).