Do you know someone who is mourning a great pain or tragedy? Maybe they lost a parent, a spouse, or a child. Maybe they contracted a terminal illness. Maybe their house burned down or they lost their job.
In such situations, Christians have the bad reputation of saying and doing the wrong things. 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 people to overcome their pain. If you have ever been in a painful experience, you know how upsetting some of these comments can be.
For myself, I am no expert in dealing with the pain and mourning of others, but I have had some painful experiences in my own life, and have talked with many people who have told me about painful experiences they went through and how people responded. The following are some suggestions for how to be with those in pain without making their pain worse. These are suggestions for mourning with those who mourn.
There are four things NOT to do, and four things to do.
Don’t Blame God
Christians don’t intentionally blame God when tragedy strikes, but often, if we really listen to what we are saying, we 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. He must have wanted to take little Bobby home to be with Him. God has something better in store for you. His ways are higher than our ways.” When talking with people in their pain, make sure that not a single Christian cliche comes out of your mouth. Not only are Christian cliches never helpful, they almost always border on heresy.
In one of my times of personal tragedy, I actually had someone tell me that God was using this tragedy to prepare me for something worse. That was encouraging. So not only was God destroying my life in the present, but it was all to prepare me for some way He would destroy my life even more in the future? This just doesn’t sound like God.
No matter what a person is going through, don’t put the blame on God. He doesn’t take children away to teach parents lessons. He doesn’t send cancer to teach us to pray. He doesn’t burn up houses to help us depend on Him.
Along with blaming God, some Christians also like to blame 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. If Job would just repent, they say, everything will turn out okay.
Despite the fact that we have the book of Job and everybody knows the story, it is surprising how common this line of reasoning still is among Christians. When bad things happen to people, the first instinct many of us have is, “Well, if only they hadn’t…” And look, it is true that sin has consequences.
But just because someone is experiencing pain in their life, this does not automatically mean that their pain is a direct consequence of sin.
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.
Whether we know the reasons for a person’s pain or not, it is never helpful or loving to bring it up. So don’t do it.
Another thing to not do is 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.
Besides, usually the comparisons are illegitimate. I know a family that lost a son in a tragic hiking accident. While they were in mourning, a man came up to the father and said, “I know just how you feel. My favorite horse died last year.”
The father told me afterward that he wanted to slug the man. He probably should have.
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. If a family loses a teenage daughter in a car accident, this is still quite different from a family who loses a teenage daughter to a deadly disease. In the second situation, the family has a chance to say goodbye, whereas in the first they don’t. Of course, in the second situation, the family is faced with watching their daughter slowly die, whereas in the first the family does not.
So don’t try to compare. Their pain is there pain, and there is nothing you can do or say to help. This brings up the fourth thing not to do.
Don’t Try to Help
Unless you can bring a loved one back from the dead (and PLEASE, don’t tell someone you can!!! I hear horror stories about this all the time), or unless you can get someone their house back or their job back, do not try to help. You cannot help.
Christians want to fix things, to help, to relieve the pain, the dull the ache, to take care of the problem. But in times of great personal tragedy, we can do none of these things, and whenever we try, we usually only make things worse. It is much better if you just go in with the mindset that you cannot help.
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? Here are four:
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 the nice thing about being present with those in pain is that you don’t have to try to think of something to say or do. You can just sit there.
Again, Job’s friends are initially a good example of this. When they arrived, they simply sat with Job for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:13). The trouble started when they opened their mouths.
When people are experiencing great personal pain, just being present with them is often more meaningful than anything else.
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 (limited) 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, and we want others to remember. 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, take your 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. Once they do that, don’t try to change the subject. Remember the person. Honor them. Praise them.
Also, you may not think so, but it is sometimes helpful to remember the anniversary of the person’s death. On the one-year anniversary of the person’s death, send a card, make a phone call, or stop by for a visit. This is a touchy thing to do, and some people do not appreciate it, so be cautious.
One of the universal experiences of tragedy is that people who go through it simply want to the world to stop for a few days. It is shocking to be reminded that people are still going to work, taking vacations, and living life. The world has come to an end for the person going through great tragedy, and often they just want people to recognize and accept this timeless void with them.
This is not a time to look at your watch, make plans, discuss the future, talk about work, or anything that involves the steady turning of the world and constant passing of time. When you are with those who mourn, do your best to help time stand still. One of the ways we can do this is in the last item below. We can serve.
When a person or family is going through personal tragedy, they don’t want to think about things that show the passing of time and that life is going on around them. So things like cooking meals, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn are often good things to do for families and individuals in their pain.
These actions are not substitutes for being present with the person, however. If we are not present with them, but busy ourselves with such tasks around the house, our actions may be interpreted as wanting to distance ourselves from their pain. So instead, these acts of service should primarily be done when the grieving person is asleep or when they indicate they want to be alone.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I know that not all of these pieces of advice will apply to every person and every situation. But in my own experiences and in my own conversations, these sorts of things are commonly mentioned as being helpful for those people who face tragedy, grief, and pain.
These eight things will allow you to mourn with those who mourn.
Are there any others you can think of? Include them in the comments below.
This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which other bloggers write about how to be with those in pain. For more stories and ideas, check out the contributions from other bloggers below:
- Comforting those who Hurt – K. W. Leslie
- Unto the Least of These – J. Stahl
- Like a Motherless Child – Carol Kuniholm
- Exploding Bridges and How to Help People – Phil Lancaster
- The Ministry of Presence – Glenn Hager
- The Problem of Pain – Chris Jefferies
- How to Be with Those in Pain – David Derbyshire
- When Sorry Seems to b the Hardest Word – Doreen A Mannion
- What Seems to Help in the Midst of Pain – Kathy Escobar
- What He Told The Home Crowd – Tim Nichols