by Calven Celliers
It is with a heavy heart that I write today’s blog post. Very dear friends of mine in Sydney, Australia tragically lost their beautiful daughter in a car accident 5 weeks ago. I have been trying to be present to them in the midst of their grief, and to support them as best I can from afar. But right now I am feeling so completely frustrated at my seeming inability to take away their pain and suffering and it has once again highlighted for me the reality of how in such situations, we stand the risk of saying and doing the wrong things, all because we don’t actually know what to say or do. We sometimes believe it is our job to fix people’s problems by giving them pat answers to painful experiences, or by trying to get them to overcome their pain. And because this is so real to me right now, I thought I might jot down some things that I’ve learnt (and said or done) along the way.
The reality of life on this side of eternity is that there is only one thing that you and I can be absolutely certain of, and that is the fact that we are all going to die. We’re part of what they call a dissolving world. Death is part of life, and as such we all have to face up to it and deal with it at various intersections along the way.
Wise King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3,
“1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens … 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 & 4NIV).
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Church at Rome, “15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15NIV)
I hope the following suggestions might help you to know what to do (or not do) and what to say (or not say) when supporting others who are going through times of personal tragedy. This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, and I know that not all of these suggestions will apply to every person and every situation. But in my own experience these sorts of things are commonly mentioned as being helpful (or unhelpful) for those people who face tragedy, grief, and pain.
Don’t intentionally blame God when tragedy strikes. It’s not helpful to tell people that God is responsible for taking their child, their husband, or their parent. We say things like, “This is all in God’s perfect plan. God has something better in store for you. His ways are higher than our ways. It was her time. God needed him more than you do.” When talking with people in their pain, make sure that not a single cliché comes out of your mouth.
Along with blaming God, sometimes we utter things that unintentionally come across as if we’re blaming the person who is hurting. The classic example of this is in the book of Job where Job’s four friends tell Job that the only reason bad things are happening to him is because God is punishing him for some sin. But just because someone is experiencing pain in their life, this does not automatically mean that their pain is a direct consequence of sin. And, even if it is, and we know it, and they know it, it is still not helpful, loving, or kind to point their sin out to them in the midst of their tragedy. If someone is dying from lung cancer, they don’t need to reminded that it is because they smoked two packs of cigarettes every day for 30 years.
Another thing to avoid is to compare horror stories. When facing the pain of others, we are often tempted to talk about our own painful experiences and how we got through them. This is rarely helpful. When a person is facing great pain, they don’t want to hear about your own pain. This is their pain; not yours. No two tragedies are identical, and so it is not helpful to bring up your pain to others who are experiencing pain, even if the tragedies are similar, don’t try to compare.
I totally get that we want to fix things, to help, to relieve the pain, to dull the ache, to take care of the problem. But in times of great personal tragedy, we can realistically do none of these things.
Once we realize we cannot help, we give up trying, and this liberates us to do the things that we can do in these situations, things that are loving and kind. What sorts of things?
Be present. One of the best things you can do when someone is facing great personal tragedy is just to be in the same room with them. Not talking, not trying to fix things, not trying to cheer them up or give them a theology lesson, but simply and only to sit there with them. There is great comfort in having people around you in times of tragedy and sadness.
If someone has experienced the loss of a family member, we often think that they don’t want us to talk about them. But in my experience, it seems that many people want exactly the opposite. Not talking about a person makes it seem that along with the person’s physical death, their memory has died as well. But when memories are all we have of a loved one, we want to remember them, and we want others to remember them too. We want to laugh at the funny things they said and did, remember the stories that made them unique, and point out their contributions to joy and happiness in this world. Of course, we need to be sensitive and take our cues on this from those in mourning. Our first task is just to be present. Only bring up memories when the grieving family members indicate that they want to talk about their departed loved one.
In closing, when a person or family is going through personal loss, they don’t want to think about things that show the passing of time and that life is going on around them. Things like cooking meals, cleaning the house, and mowing the lawn are often good things to do for families and individuals in their season of pain. These acts of service are not, however, substitutes for being present with the person. Remember, people always come before programs. If we are not present with them, but busy ourselves with actions, our actions may be interpreted as wanting to distance ourselves from their pain.
I know that this post is a tad longer than usual, but there’s just so much one can say on this topic. I trust that what I’ve shared will in some way help you when next you’re called to mourn with those who mourn.
This blog post is dedicated to the beautiful memory of
Kyra Donna Sutherland
1994/09/23 – 2020/05/24