Just Be There

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Year ago I heard a presentation called “What Not to Say at a Funeral.” 

In the presence of someone else’s grief and pain, so often we feel compelled to say something – anything – that will help make sense of the mystery of this loss.  We want to make the moment easier. 

But the following statements are almost guaranteed to make things worse:

I know just how you feel.
The same thing happened to my Aunt Claire.
Time heals all wounds.  This too shall pass.
I’m surprised the doctors weren’t able to do more.
So what was the final diagnosis?
[To a child] Now, don’t cry.  You have to be strong.
[To a 10-year-old boy] You’re the man of the family now.
[To grieving parents] God needs your little angel in heaven more than you need her here.
God must truly love you to put you through this much pain.
God must truly be testing you to put you through this much pain.
God must truly be disappointed in you to put you through this much pain.

In truth, we can never know exactly how someone else feels.  And sometimes the passing of time makes wounds feel worse. 

The Bible offers hope that in the next world every mystery will be resolved:  Why did the accident have to happen?  Why didn’t God intervene?  Why didn’t God answer our prayers for healing?  How could a God of love expect me to survive such an overwhelming loss? 

But between now and then, our attempts to make sense of deep pain can be seriously misguided – as evidenced by the kind of hurtful theology that is so often expressed in mortuaries. 

An entire book of the Bible is devoted to the experience of one suffering person and his subsequent wrestling match with God.  A man named Job has been crushed by grief and pain.  Three of his friends show up to comfort him.  When they first see Job they are so shocked by his appearance that they weep out loud.  Then they just sit, saying nothing, for an entire week.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, Job’s friends just can’t stay silent.  They have to figure out exactly why this disaster has happened.  It’s a long story, but the bottom line is that they wind up making Job feel far worse than if they had just sat next to him and cried. 

And that’s an important clue for all of us.  How should we act when we come into the presence of a grieving person?  Or what should we write in that card that accompanies the flowers?  What’s appropriate to say at a funeral?

I love you.
I’m so sorry.
I’m so glad to be here with you.

Or just as powerful…say nothing at all. 

Just be there. 

Very few things are as healing as a friend who is not far away, simply sharing our pain.