Sunday, January 28, 2007

the art of comfort

I've been surrounded by grieving people lately--and have done a bit of grieving myself. The first few days after I heard the news about my nephew's death (I still can't bring myself to call it murder), I almost felt like it had been my own child's body that had been found on that Alabama jetty. All the emotions that flooded my heart after Jonah's death came crashing down on me like a tidal wave of sorrow. I wept--even wailed at times--for several days. I was shocked by the intense grief I felt for a nephew that I didn't really know.
But I do know what it's like to lose a son.
I called my sister today. She is indignant that life flows blissfully on, while Micah's death has derailed her very existence. She struggles to find the energy to get out of bed, but the demands of her children, job, and relationships do not let up. Good-intentioned folks, who have yet to bury a loved one, give her endless advice on how to get on with her life. Shannon is not impressed. As I listen to her, I remember . . .

Not long after our accident, someone gave me a book about the stages of grief. This wasn't a "Christian" book, but I still found it most helpful.
One chapter described 5 phrases that should never be uttered to a grieving person; the author referred to these statements as "the five awful kindnesses." To the best of my recollection, they were:
1. It was God's will
2. It was for the best
3. Cheer up, things could be worse
4. I understand just how you feel
5. Maybe God is trying to teach you something

And sure enough, we endured each of these awful kindnesses. I can still remember Carol, a good friend of mine, sitting by me bed and saying, "Shawn, I know just how you feel." I knew that Carol hadn't lost any children--or any other close family members, for that matter. And as I lay there with a fractured femur and two broken tibias, I pondered the fact that she'd never broken a bone. She had put her dog to sleep a few months earlier, but I didn't think that was in the same category as our loss. I knew Carol meant well, but I was really glad when she left that day!
The other incident that really rankled me happened shortly after our accident. Another friend, a mature sister in the Lord, came to visit me in the hospital. Thinking she was someone I could trust with my deepest pain, I vented to her my struggles with God.
"Maybe there is some kind of sin in your life that He is dealing with," she said in response to my complaints, looking me square in the eye.
"And cheer up," she comforted, "things could be worse. At least your two other children were spared."
(I have no actual memory of what happened next, but Greg said he knew I was going to be OK because I cussed at her).
Even at the time, I knew my friend was trying to be encouraging. She was trying to point out the positives in our tragedy--to help me look on the "bright side" of things. Before our accident, I wouldn't have acted much differently--I was always quick to plaster scripture "bandaids" on mortal wounds. Her words--like mine--were spoken in ignorance. And I forgave her, but resolved to never say such stupid things to another hurting person again.

My humble advice to those who want to comfort the grieving?

1. Listen . . . you really can't go wrong with this tactic!
2. Look for practical ways to help--the grieving person is using all their energy just to get through the day. People from our church helped us out in so many practical ways--from bringing meals to cl
1eaning the house to taking us to our doctor's appointments.
3. Love on them. Give lots of hugs. Send cards and make phone calls. Remember difficult days (birthdays, anniversaries of the deceased). Stay close--don't let fear keep you away.
4. Lift them up in prayer--especially that the peace and comfort of God would permeate their broken hearts.
5. Laugh! This might sound strange, but we so looked forward to our friends who made us laugh. There's healing in humor, and we found that laughter was truly the best medicine at times.

I still don't think I'm the best comforter in the world (I have this terrible urge to "fix" everything), but I made my sister laugh today and I know that she will be OK.
But if you read this, please pray for Shannon. The journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death can be a long and lonely road . . .