Just Show Up

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When someone else is hurting, it’s tempting to think our call is to do something amazing or to say something unusually wise.

But most of the time, the need of the hour is simply to show up.  

In his recent bestseller How to Know a Person, cultural commentator David Brooks recounts the story of a professor who teaches decision-making skills to first-year medical students. Out the blue, Nancy Abernathy’s world was shattered when her 50-year-old husband died of a heart attack while cross-country skiing.  

Nancy continued teaching throughout that winter and spring. During one class she casually mentioned that she dreaded the start of next year’s course. That’s when she always invited students to bring in family photos so they might get to know each other.  How could she hold up a picture of her late husband and not break down in tears?

Summer came and went.  The fall semester arrived.  So did the dreaded day.

When she stepped into her lecture hall, bracing herself to confront a wave of painful memories, she noticed something was different. There were way too many people in the room. Her new students were there. But so were last year’s students. They had come just to be with her at this tender moment. 

As Nancy later reflected, their silent presence was the ultimate gift of compassion.

When David Brooks was teaching at Yale, he got to know a student named Jillian Sawyer.  She had recently lost her father to pancreatic cancer. Before he died, Jillian and her dad had talked about all the things he was going to miss in her life. He wouldn’t be there on her wedding day. There would be no father-daughter dance. He wouldn’t have the joy of meeting any children that came into her life. 

Sometime later, Jillian was a bridesmaid at the wedding of a friend. The father of the bride offered glowing remarks about his daughter’s curiosity and spirit, then joined her for that special dance.

Jillian excused herself and walked toward the ladies room, where she had a good cry.

When she came back out, all those who had been sitting at her table were waiting for her.  

“What I will remember forever,” Jillian recalls, “is that no one said a word. I am still amazed at the profoundness that can echo in silence.” There were hugs. “They were just there for me, just for a moment. And it was exactly what I needed.” 

Years ago, when I was going through one of the hardest times in my life, a pastor friend came to see me. We simultaneously pulled into the parking lot where we had agreed to meet.

As soon as he saw me, he began to cry.

My friend may have felt a bit awkward. It’s not always easy for guys to cry. Perhaps he imagined that he was going to say something profound. All I know is that I will never forget that moment. He didn’t need to say or do anything else. His tears were the greatest gift he could have given to me. 

This dovetails with the apostle Paul’s gentle words in Romans 12:15: “Mourn with those who mourn.”

Notice what Paul doesn’t say.  

He doesn’t advise his readers to tell a grieving person that everything’s going to be OK.  Or to give them the contact information of a local grief therapy group. Or to provide a likely explanation for why this awful thing happened. Or tell them that since it’s been a few weeks, maybe they should stop crying. After all, people who trust God shouldn’t cry, right? 

It’s deeply reassuring to note that Jesus, in the presence of grieving friends, shed tears. 

Being present – paying attention to a hurting person, noticing their circumstances, sustaining a heightened awareness of what they are experiencing – is a powerful gift. 

Where is God when life hurts? Until we’re all in the next world, we won’t be fully able to answer that question.

But in the meantime we can know how to answer a corollary question:

Where should we be when life hurts? 

We should be nearby, giving the gift of simply showing up.