Quiet Presence: Comfort Those Who Hurt
Two friends call with heartbreaking news—news that will change 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 his first couple to lose a baby—this one died at twenty-three weeks. Feeling at a loss for words, he sat in silence and wept with them. When they thanked him later for saying just the right words, he wondered aloud “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 resonate.
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 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 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 people need. But we must balance even our presence 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 disappear.’” 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. Those who hurt may long for company. But they may also wish for time alone without anyone scrutinizing their actions and words.
If we do speak, we need to 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.” “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 still we must “suffer long” with those who hurt.
A friend who lost her son told me that not one of her many friends reached out in the months that followed the funeral to ask how she was doing with her grief. “People have been friendly,” she said. Yet no one ministered to her at her point of pain. Who in your life needs your call, your card, your food delivery, 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 and when we are called on to help, we should keep our observations to ourselves, being careful never to use the information we’ve gained to prove we’re “in the know.” The late Eugene Peterson described such actions as “cobbl[ling] together makeshift, messianic work that inflates our importance and indispensability.”
Although we may want desperately to take the pain away, we know we can’t. Yet 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.
(This post also appeared on The Holy Shift website for April 2022.)