By Donna Lee Schillinger
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Proverbs 25:20
Around the Forth of July, we are often reminded of the death of brave soldiers and even loved ones in the history of our great nation. In honor of my grandfather, Wilbur Hunter, a World War II veteran who passed away on May 8, 2010, I offer this observation: Americans suck at comforting people. There are some wonderful things about American culture, but when it comes to grieving, our culture has left us completely unprepared. We have no idea how to comfort someone who has just lost someone very close. Probably because we just don’t think it’s ever going to happen to us!
When my brother-in-law passed away at 46 years of age, his wife needed support that I didn’t know how to give. Having been married for almost 15 years, this man was her life. When I saw her for the first time after he passed away, she looked like I’d never seen her look before—lost. It was so sad and she was so upset and I… was clueless as to how to help. I was hurting acutely as well, and having recently suffered the loss of my own son, one would think I would know what to do in such a situation. In those first hours at my sister-in-law’s home, I wracked my brain for some direction on how to behave. I knew what my sister-in-law was feeling, but also knew better than to tell her that.
That’s rule number one, a grieving person doesn’t want to hear that you know how he feels—he won’t believe it or appreciate it, even if it’s true. In fact, it is rarely ever true. No matter how similar the situation or the loss seems to us, we don’t know how each person in the same circumstances actually feels. We can’t, because he is a unique individual with different ways of responding to the world around them. We can guess how he feels, and perhaps be quite accurate. We can estimate how we think we would feel in the same situation, and our evaluation may be close, but we can never actually know how that certain individual feels. We should be hesitant to tell him we know how he feels, and much quicker to ask him how he s coping.
The book of Job actually holds some solid advice on co-grieving. Job’s three friends have gone down in history as examples of what not to do for a friend is suffering, but that’s not fair. It’s true that those guys screwed up the moment they opened their mouths, but do you recall what they did before they spoke? Take note: “When they saw [Job] from a distance, they could hardly recognize him, they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12-13).
Here it is—how to co-grieve in two simple steps: Don’t hold back your own feelings of grief; and just sit quietly with the grieving person. Simple. On the flipside, our proverb tells us what not to do: sing songs. Duh! Right? Wrong. Maybe your momma taught you better than to break out into song while you’re in the presence of someone who is grieving, but I can tell you from experience, not all have the good judgment not to “sing songs.”
A life has been lost, but all we can muster is 15 minutes of reverence. About that soon after the mourners arrive, they start discussing the weather, the traffic, a movie that just came out—anything. It’s like, “We did our thing, we gave a tearful hug to the widow, life goes on, get over it.” We should bear in mind that for the person mourning, the fact that life goes on might be infuriating. The person mourning most heavily may want all the world to stop for at least one full day and observe her grief with her—sit in silent contemplation of the one she has lost.
On the day of my son’s funeral, we went to my mother’s house after the burial and within 10 minutes, it was like we were at a family reunion. All the reverence for the occasion that had been apparent at the grave site dissipated and only my husband and I were left sitting on the couch, choking down a sandwich, listening to mundane conversation around us, wondering what the heck just happened! Did everyone simultaneously forget that our son died?
It doesn’t always play out this way. Sometimes the person who was closest to the deceased will not appear to be heavily grieved, and some may not want comfort. Some, particularly if the death of their loved one was a result of a long battle with disease or from old age, may have done a lot of their heavy grieving in the months that preceded the death. They may be in a “let’s celebrate their life” mode. In that case, do it, celebrate their life. This doesn’t mean it’s OK to start talking about books and movies within 15 minutes, it means the grieving person wants the mood to be positive, but still all about the one they love.
The important thing is to take your cues from the person with whom you’re grieving: match their mood and don’t change the subject. This day is all about the person who passed away. Stay focused. That’s it. It’s simple, yet it does not necessarily feel natural or comfortable.
Our society tends to marginalize these types of things due to the uneasy nature of the subject. Death causes us to address questions about which we may be uncertain. Most of us don’t like to dwell on the afterlife, although we may strongly believe in its existence. Some don’t want to discuss it because they really don’t know what will happen. For this reason, it may have been easier for Job’s friends to support him through the grieving process in the manner they did, although they might have been getting a little hungry for a sub sandwich or antsy for pillow after sitting on the hard ground with Job for four days straight. They probably didn’t feel the emotional doubt we often do and were more accustomed to the physical discomfort than most of us are. And yet, we find out later that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did about God and death.
We can take solace in that fact, and realize we can learn something from one of the oldest recorded funerals. When we attempt to comfort someone, we may feel extremely uncomfortable from the minute we arrive to the minute we walk out the door, but we can be encouraged knowing that God can use the attitude of our heart when it’s focused on helping the grieving person. We should remember that it won’t necessarily be our words that provide them with the comfort they need. Their comfort comes foremost from God’s Spirit. Our willingness to simply stand (or sit) with them in their time of grief will speak volumes.
Donna Lee Schillinger is the founder of On My Own Now Ministries, Inc., editor of Single! Young Christian Woman and author of On My Own Now: Straight Talk from the Proverbs for Young Christian Women who Want to Remain Pure, Debt-free and Regret-free.