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Extending the Love of Jesus in Times of Loss
Soon after my daughter died, my sister-in-law telephoned from another state. "I've been trying to get your brother to call, but he doesn't know what to say," she apologized. My brother's discomfort and bewilderment are common. What can you say to soothe someone who is suffering an inconsolable loss?
God does not call us to be experts, but we can all learn to come alongside others during their darkest hour. "When Dad died, I held it together until after the funeral," my neighbor Bill said. "Then I fell apart. People tried to say the 'right thing,' but there just aren't any right words. However, I felt most loved by one friend who simply cried with me."
Job would agree. When he lost his material wealth the same day that disaster claimed all ten of his children, friends offered endless advice and their own spiritualized explanations of the catastrophe. Job called them "miserable comforters." (Job 16:1 NIV) "Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze?" he asked them. "Is it that my help is not within me, and that deliverance is driven from me? For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend; so that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty" (Job 6:12-14).
The very idea of loss is uncomfortable to most of us and can make for awkward situations. After my Sunday school teacher's children were killed in car accident, she noticed some people actually turned away when they saw her around town. We may need to get past our discomfort and fear if we are to be helpful. "The people I appreciated most," said Barbara, "were those who hugged me and said, 'I've been thinking of you.'"
At times, we all feel confused about how to help bereaved friends. Sometimes the answer is as simple as imagining ourselves in their painful shoes. A recently widowed co-worker was comforted by those who thought to walk with her in the church parking lot, who sat with her so she wouldn't be alone in her regular pew, and who invited her to lunch on an otherwise lonely weekend afternoon.
We don't have to have our life all "together" in order to help someone else. The most effective comfort comes from those who put their arms around a distraught friend and communicate, not just with words, "I don't understand either. But I love you and I am here to go through this with you." Since we know that nothing at all—neither the painful things in our life or even death—can separate us from the deep love of Jesus (Romans 8:38-39), we can cling along with our hurting friend to that love, even as we fail to understand the tragedy of the present.
Time doesn't heal our wounds when we've had to say goodbye to a loved one; it merely teaches us how to live with that gaping hole in our life. Sharing the journey of grief helps. Ecclesiastes 4:10 (NIV) says, "If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!"
I can say from experience that the first year after losing a loved one is particularly difficult—especially on those important dates. While outsiders quickly forget that someone significant is missing, holidays continually remind the bereaved that life is forever altered. You can comfort and show love to a still-grieving friend by sending a note, flowers, or memorial gift on special occasions. A simple telephone call on the anniversary (even a monthly "anniversary") of the death can make a huge difference. Don't be afraid that you're making things worse—your friend's thoughts are undoubtedly already on his or her loved one.
Often the best comfort comes from one who's been there. If you yourself have suffered loss, draw on your personal experience to find meaningful ways of communicating concern. My grandmother discovered the value of such expression the Sunday after her husband was buried. Following the service—for which she'd placed a memorial rose at the pulpit—a woman who'd been widowed the previous year asked Grandma what she was planning to do. "Go home, I guess," was her answer.
"Let's get a beer," Delores teased. The absurd idea made Grandma laugh for the first time in a long while. The two women left church together and went out for milkshakes because Delores remembered how dismal it had felt to go home all alone the Sunday after her own husband died.
Likewise, my cousin Jim remembers what a difference his friend Richard made after his wife passed away. "I felt lost," he said. "Julie had always done the shopping, so I didn't even know which detergent to buy." But because Richard remembered how terrified he'd felt in the grocery store after his own wife died, he offered to take Jim on his first trip to the market.
In God's economy, our sufferings never have to be wasted. As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, "the Father of compassion" not only comforts us because He feels our pain and wants to heal us; He also plants within us seeds of His kindness and caring so that one day we will be able to share what we've received with people who need consolation. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus that reach out and go to a hurting world. As we touch others who are in distress, we become a link connecting them with God's unfailing love.
WHAT DOESN'T HELP
• Don't resort to clichés when unsure of what to say. Express something genuine like "I'm sorry," even if it seems inadequate. Trite phrases like "At least you had those years together," or "He's in a better place" can be hurtful, regardless of good intentions.
• Don't offer the well-meaning but vague "If there's anything I can do, call." (They won't.) Instead, make concrete suggestions like, "I'll be at the market today. What can I pick up for you?" or "May I take your children to the park Saturday?"
• Don't pressure people to discuss their loss, but listen if they want to talk. You can open the door by asking, "How are you?"
• Don't try to distract the bereaved with excessive busyness. Grief cannot be bypassed; it must be walked through.
• Don't say, "I know how you feel," even if you've faced a similar circumstance. Each relationship is unique, with positive and negative nuances outsiders cannot comprehend. Instead, try phrases like "it must be . . . " or "you must feel . . . " which can show a desire to understand.
• Don't use Scripture casually. To a person in mourning, even the wonderful encouragement of Romans 8:28 can sound like a platitude. Ask the Holy Spirit's guidance for comforting verses to share.
• Don't offer advice unless it is requested. A good listening ear is often more helpful—and appreciated.
• Don't expect people to grieve in a prescribed way or on a particular timetable. While the mourning process includes certain identifiable "stages," their order, duration, recurrence, and style are different for each individual. They may be a useful tool for understanding, but be careful not to label or place expectations on the mourner.
• Don't assume it's too late to offer support. Grieving is a long process; your encouragement may be desperately needed after others have moved on.
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