When we honestly ask ourselves which
person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is
those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have
chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or
confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement,
who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with
us the reality of our powerlessness – that is a friend who cares.
Condolence, as Monica Lehner-Kahn aptly
reminds us, is the art of giving courage. Deep down, the bereaved
are acutely aware that they no longer fit in. Suddenly there is no
one around with whom to share precious memories, and no one with
whom to enjoy the dearly familiar rounds of life. The household’s
silence palls. With their past exposed and their future uncertain,
fears of being excluded hook into other long-buried memories of
being overlooked and passed over.
The more willing we are to enter
their isolation, the more bearable we make life for them. Contrary
to what we might suppose, most people do not expect us to come up
with all the answers for their dilemmas: it is our presence that is
One of the many challenges about
spending time with someone in grief is knowing when to sit back and
let them “vent,” and when to try to steer them beyond it. Our
starting point is to remember that we are there to serve them,
rather than to correct every distorted perspective. More often than
not, it is best neither to collude with such perspectives, nor to
If the person becomes agitated and
directs cutting remarks your way such as, “I feel dreadful – and
you’re not helping much!” count to ten and make allowances. It is
likely to be a reflection of the enormous strain they are going
through than anything personal. They may be feeling at odds with the
doctor who diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) them, or with someone else
entirely. Resist the temptation to snap back that they are not the
easiest person in the world to help, and try saying something like,
“What are you finding hardest to cope with?”
Bearing in mind that we are there
primarily to serve and strengthen them, it can help to choose a seat
at a lower level, so that the person is looking down at us, rather
than up. Holding hands, an arm around the shoulder, a tender look –
all such non verbal gestures can mean so much.
We may find going over and over the
same ground tiring, but this is precisely what hurting people need
to do. Telling and retelling the story of what happened is an
important part in managing and reducing their trauma.
To be sure, there are those who
consider grief a dangerous emotion – a luxury that deprives one not
only of courage, but even of the will to recover. Others, like John
Adams in a moving letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, recognise the
beneficial effects that grief has had in terms of shaping and
fashioning their soul.
||Grief drives men into the
habit of serious reflection, sharpens the understanding and
softens the heart.
As we shall be seeing in
Part Nine, the griefs we experience often “qualify” us
to share the Lord's own heart. To enable someone to express
their sadness may therefore be the kindest thing we can do
for them. They are embarking on a new quest to redefine
themselves – a process that will involve many difficult
decisions and, quite possibly, more than one false start.
Reflect and Pray
Think rather – call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.
Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.
Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.