Yesterday two dear friends called with heartbreaking news—news that will change the course of their lives. And as a “word” person, I’m profoundly aware of how inadequate words are at such times. In fact, offering comfort can be as much about what we don’t say as what we do….
An obstetrician friend told me that 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. He felt surprised when they later thanked him profusely saying, “You said just the right words.” He wondered “What words? I didn’t say anything?” Then he realized…precisely!
“The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint,” wrote poet Marianne Moore more than a century ago. Her words still ring true today.
Silence keeps us from asking nosy 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, though 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 do 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.”
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 those who hurt.
My friend who lost her son this winter told me recently that not one of her many friends has reached out since the funeral to ask how she’s doing with the grief. They have been friendly, she said, but no one has ministered to her at her point of pain. Is there someone who needs your call, your touch, your knock at the door?
A note of caution here: 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.” Dr. Eugene Peterson describes such actions as “cobbl[ling] 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.