August 4, 2015
Observing others in grief can be as difficult as being in your own. The emotions for those standing by can range from fear, confusion, helplessness, anger, pity, frustration and deep sorrow.
Grieving is hard work and its different for everyone. Ask the mother who never cried over the loss of four adult children and a granddaughter. Ask the long-married wife who cannot stop crying after the death of her husband. Ask the parents who just lost a newborn to SIDS death.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to people suffering grief. Those who are brave enough to speak often attempt to rationalize the death with personalized theological truths. Those who feel shy about reaching out to grieving people will avoid them altogether which can be as hurtful as saying the wrong thing.
If you plan to stay with the grieving person, don’t judge any behavior. If you want to be a friend in comfort, create an emotionally safe environment where anything goes and you are okay.
Most people know to never say, “I know how you feel.” No one can know how anyone feels. If it’s true, you can say, “I lost a daughter too. I know the pain.” However, give yourself permission to say nothing. Don’t compete with their grief. Your silence will be comfort enough and you will know when it is time to speak. You can never really add value to sitting through a death by saying something. Your presence has its own value.
Job’s Old Testament friends are known for misinterpreting Job’s suffering. They are seldom recognized for the good moments when they responded to Job’s anguish with wisdom. When Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar first heard of the tragedy, they immediately came to comfort Job:
“Thus they lifted up their eyes from afar, but they did not recognize him, so they raised their voice, and they wept, and each man tore his outer garment and threw dust on their heads toward the sky. Then they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:12–13).
Job had just lost ten children and their families–his grandchildren. His herds, representing massive wealth, were carried away by thieves and his hired hands were killed. But, not once did he curse God for his calamity. He then became so covered with boils that he was damaged beyond recognition.
We often try to diminish grief with clichés that fill the silence, like “God is in control”, “You don’t see it now, but you will.” “Time will heal.” While it’s true, it is no comfort.
Job’s friends realized that weak attempts to speak trivial truths would only interrupt and add to the grieving that was necessary and appropriate. So, they shared his grief, stayed in his presence, and didn’t speak a word–for seven days.
When Job’s friends decided it was time to speak, Job wished they would be silent: “O that you would keep completely silent and that it would become wisdom for you” (Job 13:5).
Our response to the grief of others should be prayerful. Attempts to explain events that we don’t ultimately understand ourselves can bring even more pain. Consider a fatality caused by a drunk driver, a house fire taking the lives of old people or children, or a SIDS death.
What is true is that tears and crying are necessary in the grief and recovery process. Many times in the day-room at the ER, I have witnessed doctors deliver the pronouncement of death to family members. The process is the always the same. The best of comforts is to be silent and let them cry. Soon, the reality of the event becomes evident and people begin to breathe again.
It is then that shared grief and empathy help survivors grip the new reality followed in time by the new normal. You don’t get over it; you learn to live with it. Life does go on and there are always arrangements and adjustments to be made and experienced. Just stand by. It’s called a ministry of presence.
Kay Wilson-Bolton is a Fire Chaplain and Biblical Counselor