Have you ever felt helpless and speechless going to a wake? I have. I have also witnessed the bereaved comforting the “comforter!” Hubby once went to the wake of a friend’s young daughter. Minutes after sitting beside the friend, he started crying. I can still picture in my mind, the hand of the friend going behind hubby’s shoulder and patting him gently. What a scene!
Job 2:11-13 record for us the profile of what seems to me to be the ideal comforter.
Job’s three friends all came from different places and they agreed to go together to comfort him. Don’t we often do this? We accompany each other to wakes. It’s easier not to do this alone.
When they ‘saw’ Job, they ‘raised their voices and wept’. They even tore their clothes and put ashes on their heads. They came, they saw and they mourned.
Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.
And how did Job describe these 3 friends? “you are miserable comforters, all of you!” Read Job 16:2. What happened? It started when they opened their mouths! Read all about their great debates from Job 4-15. The point of their argument is: Job is suffering because he did something wrong.
Lessons to ponder…
To mourn with those who mourn is to ‘see‘ – to realise how great the sorrow and pain of those grieving.
It is also to be in the ‘shoes’ of those grieving – to feel as they feel, to cry as they cry.
7 days and 7 nights – it’s even as long as the longest wakes I usually hear of. In the Philippines, ‘lamay’ usually lasts for 3 to 7 days. Journeying with others in their suffering takes time – time which is often a luxury for us to offer. During the wake, the bereaved is in the company of friends who come to comfort. It is a temporary period where pain and grief seem a little bit more distant or bearable. What about the days, months and years after?
More than time itself, what is my attitude when I offer my time? When I am grieving, the presence of a friend holding my hand, patting my shoulders and giving me a tissue to wipe my tears – these are treasures more than words can offer. What motivated Job’s friends? ‘for they SAW that his pain was very great.’ Again, to mourn with those who mourn is to ‘see’.
Am I willing to sit on the ground to grieve with those in grief? When I feel helpless and speechless, when I ‘SEE’ how great her pain is, then perhaps it’s when my grieving friend gets most comforted!
Lord, open my eyes that I may see.
Not a word
When you do not know what to say, it is best not to say anything. I have been on both sides of the fence – to comfort the bereaved and needing comfort as the bereaved. When my mom passed away, the story of Job came to mind. I did not feel like narrating the story of how my mom passed away again and again. I did not feel like talking at all. I just wanted to sit quietly with my friends. So I wrote a note to let them read: Thank you for coming. Thank you for sitting with me quietly.
In the end, I put the note away, because it was so unorthodox and did not jive with our culture of grief. Ours is one of words. We often think we need to say something – to offer solutions, words of advice and comfort. We feel the need to break the silence: a culture of denial—showing a brave face, a strong spirit, covering the sadness with chatter, pushing away the grief with words of “comfort.”
My parents died within 5 months of each other. My mom who was 13 years younger went ahead of my dad. In the months that followed their sickness and passing, God sent my sister and me many companions to be with us on our journey. In hindsight, I realise that the most precious gift they offered us was their time—listening to our prayer requests, uttering a kind word, visiting my parents when they were sick and praying with them, being present when we needed them most.
I know that these friends were motivated by their love of God and their love for us. Love compelled them to open their ears to listen to our grief without faltering. Love opened their eyes to see our need for encouragement and companionship.
In the Chinese culture, bereaved people avoid going to visit friends’ homes, because it might bring bad luck to the household they visit. Because of this belief, a friend was greatly comforted when a family friend told his mom, “You can come to my home wearing your blackest attire anytime.” Indeed, no journey is too hard to bear as long as we know we are not alone.
When God created Adam, he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are not meant to live our lives alone. We need people to walk with us through our challenges, reminding us that God is always near to us, and the Holy Spirit is our guide and counsellor along the way.
During my grief, I received many words of well-intended “comfort.” Someone sent me a text: “Move on.” This came as a shock. Move on? To where? “Slowly,” I replied.
Moving on implies leaving something behind, getting it over with. Perhaps the only people who think there’s a time limit for grief have never lost a piece of their heart. I do not really want to “move on”—but if I do, I hope I will be moving from being sad and emotional to holding my grief with joy and strength.
When someone asks, “What happened?” I sigh with weariness. I’m exhausted from going through the whole story, beginning to end, sickness to death. What happened? Death happened. Sickness happened. My response is—nothing. I do not bother to reply. It would be better to say nothing at all.
When someone asks, “How are you?” my canned reply is: “Better” or “Up and down.” At least this question helps me to assess myself and reply honestly about how am I coping. The question, “How are you?” became a steppingstone toward deeper reflective time with God and with myself.
But when a classmate ended her words of condolences with the words, “no need to reply,” I welcomed them with relief. I sensed her empathy. She must have known how tiring it was to respond to every word of sympathy and inquiry. These words told me that she understood I needed to be silent.
Silence is often the best response we can give to one another.
Henri Nouwen wisely observed: “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 healing, not curing…that is a friend who cares.”[i]
My godmother comforted me with: “No words.”
I appreciated a friend’s, “We do not know what to say.”
A grieving friend wrote: “When you do not know what to say, please say nothing.”
Benjamin Allen said, “When someone says, ‘There are no words…’ it is there I will find them and we will meet in the silent language of grief.”[ii]
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Amen. –2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (NASB)
[i] Henri Nouwen. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations of the Christian Life. (Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2004).
[ii] Benjamin Scott Allen. Out of the Ashes: Healing in the Afterloss. (Reno: Senssoma Publishing, 2014).