“Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall”—Longfellow
Tragedy’s coming. And chances are:
You don’t know when.
You don’t know what form it will take.
You won’t be able to prevent it.
You won’t be prepared for it.
When the storm comes, it’s going to take all of your resources to weather it. One of the bigger questions is whether you will have the right friends for the job—and will you be the right friend when they need you?
Words will fail you
Whether it is a death, a lost job, a divorce, or any number of other calamities, it’s amazing some of the “comforting” things people will say . I recently asked this question on Twitter:
What's the worst thing someone has said to you in an effort to comfort you through a tragedy?—
Jayson Bradley (@jaysondbradley) January 28, 2014
You probably won’t find many of the responses surprising.
@jaysondbradley It's all part of God's plan, God needed another angel, it's God's timing.—
Kathryn Witzel (@KWitzel) January 28, 2014
@jaysondbradley You ought to be over it by now. You need therapy.—
Barbara Blackburn (@BabWryter) January 28, 2014
@jaysondbradley everything happens for a reason.—
lyndacrain (@LyndaCrain) January 28, 2014
@jaysondbradley “I know it's hard but it's good.” They were aiming for Romans 8:28 type of thing but I still wanted to punch them.—
Liz Renee (@ContraryWoman) January 28, 2014
@jaysondbradley “I admire you so much; you're so strong!” – In the midst, I'd rather be weak and happy than strong and in pain.—
Jennifer Tatum (@LexicalJen) January 28, 2014
@jaysondbradley Right after my brother committed suicide…a “friend” said “I know how you feel, my boyfriend just dumped me.”—
Sarah Retro Decker (@LoveOnLaughOn) January 29, 2014
Why words don’t work
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that dealing with someone else’s trauma is difficult and awkward. We’re confronted with our desire to help ease their pain—and our complete inability to do so. In dealing with that deficit, we resort to trying to find the right words to massage the pain away. It almost always fails.
Even if what you say is completely right, it likely won’t help. There’s nothing rational about grief. It’s an overwhelming, and all-encompassing emptiness, anxiety, and panic that comes over you in waves. Sometimes those waves last for days, and sometimes they last for moments. But when you’re in their grasp, those waves of grief are all that exist and it’s impossible to imagine life without them.
Those waves don’t relent when confronted with truth. Occasionally, the words you use will hurt more than help. In fact, I know a lots of people who, years later, can’t remember the grief, but still carry the scars of words spoken to them when they were in the thick of it.
Presence is your true gift
Part of our problem is that we’re pretty isolated from even our closest relationships. We don’t have the time it takes to really help someone through their pain. There isn’t any magic bullet to get people to pull out of their grief. The only thing you can do is be there with them.
Being present is the easiest thing in the world—and the hardest.
In the book of Job, we see a man stricken with the loss of his children, property, and health. His friends come and sit quietly and mourn with him for seven days. It isn’t until they start talking and offering their own personal opinions and theodocies that things start unraveling.
There comes a time when the most well-intentioned person is going to want to hurry the grieving process along. But that’s just not how it works. Being there for someone means listening to irrational, sometimes caustic, diatribes. It means patiently enduring their anger and hurt at God and anyone they feel has failed them. It means weeping with them and providing a safe place for them to get the poison out.
After a while, it’s going to be tiring, inconvenient, and difficult—do it anyway. After all, 98% of crises care is just showing up.
Image by Timothy Faust