I want to say a few words about responding to people who are grieving. Most of us won’t have the opportunity to be personally involved with those who lost loved ones in the tragedy at Virginia Tech. But all of us will, in time, have the chance to reach out in love to people who are going through difficult and painful times.
People grieve in different ways. This understanding is crucial if we want to love in ways that will be helpful. Some need to talk and talk and talk about their pain. Others prefer to be alone, at least a times. Most people need times of solitude and times of togetherness. (But, as Dr. Mike rightly points out in wise a comment below, “We need one another; we need community,” especially in times of sorrow.) Often they don’t know what they need. Grief can almost obliterate consciousness for a while.
The most important thing we can do is be present with those who hurt. Sometimes our presence will be literal. Sometimes it will be expressed through a card or a letter or a meal. Presence says “I am with you. And I will be with you through this process.” Presence doesn’t try to make things better. It doesn’t offer explanations or solutions. Presence doesn’t try to fix things. Rather, it offers love in tangible, faithful, and non-invasive ways.
Our American tendency is to want to help people feel better, to take away their pain. Thus we’re often tempted to “cheer people up.” We want to say things like, “I’m sure God will work good things out of this tragedy.” Now this might be true. Indeed, I believe it is. But when people are in the midst of deep grief, such words, even when true, can seem terribly superficial. Worse yet, they can feel like a knife cutting an even deeper wound. Let your words be few.
When my dad was dying of cancer, his friend Bob would come and visit him in the hospital. Sometimes Bob would sit with my dad for hours, not talking, not expecting my dad to do or say anything, but just being there as a friend and a brother in Christ, sharing in my dad’s pain. This was presence, and it was a wonderful gift. Now, twenty years later, when I see Bob, I still remember his hours at my dad’s bedside, and I feel deep gratitude for Bob’s presence.
Because people grieve in such different ways, we must try to listen to them, to what they are wanting and needing. At times our listening will be literal, as we hear their cries and complaints and fears and hopes. Yet we must try to “listen” with our hearts, to sense what people are really saying and feeling. A person might say, “God hates me” when, indeed, she means, “I feel so horrible I can’t stand it. I don’t sense God’s comfort. I’m so alone and afraid.” If we take “God hates me” literally and try to prove that God doesn’t hate her, we may miss the opportunity to empathize and be present.
People who are in the midst of suffering find different expressions to be helpful. Some appreciate a hug. Others might prefer an offer of help (Let me bring dinner. Let me take the kids for a while.) Still others might find relief from a walk on the beach. Or . . . .
Since American culture tends to be uncomfortable with grief, we often want to rush people into recovery. We want them to get better . . . soon. We’re afraid that they might be stuck in sorrow. Though it’s occasionally true that people can let their grief turn into depression that requires outside help, usually what people need most is the freedom to feel sad for a longer time than we might expect. This isn’t true for all people, of course. But most of us take time to get over major losses.
By the way, when I saw “get over,” I don’t mean to imply that people are ever “all better” or “good as new.” Parents who lose their children to death, for example, are never “all better,” even though they can live full, delightful, and meaningful lives. But a part of them will always miss their child, and will at times grieve over their loss, especially on special occasions, such as birthdays and key anniversaries.
When you’re in a difficult place, hearing that somebody is praying for you can make a huge difference, especially if you’re “all prayed out.” So I’d encourage you to let folks who are hurting know that you’ll be praying for them. And then be sure to follow through! (On rare occasions, somebody who’s feeling angry with God will say something sarcastic in response to an offer of prayer. If this happens to you, don’t try to fix things. It’s not the time for a theological debate.)
Today I was on the Hugh Hewitt radio show talking about these issues in response to the Virginia Tech tragedy. I mentioned some books I’ve found helpful when dealing with grief, both personally and theologically. (You can find these books in one of yesterday’s posts.) After the show, a man named Ed recommended another book. He said it helped him a great deal when his son died at 15 years old. I have not read this book, but I trust Ed’s recommendation and also the publisher (Baker Books). So here’s another book that might be helpful:
June Cerza Kolf, When Will I Stop Hurting? Dealing with a Recent Death
Ed also mentioned another book by this author. It seems useful to those who are wanting to help people who are grieving. Again, I haven’t read this book, but it appears to be a valuable resource. I ordered it myself today, along with the first book:
June Cerza Kolf, How Can I Help? How to Support Someone Who is Grieving
There is so much more that could be said about grief and caring for people who are grieving. But I’d sum up with these bits of advice: Reach out in love. Don’t be afraid. Don’t talk too much. Be present. Listen. Give permission. Pray. Be present some more. Listen some more. Give more permission. Pray some more. Love some more. And then love even more.