Apr 27, 2008
How to Help Your Grieving Friend, Part 8
About a year ago, friends of my family lost their 27-year-old son in a motorcycle accident. He died instantly. Not living close to them, I wanted to send a card so they would know that I was thinking about them and praying for them.
Buying this card was a first for me. Not because I hadn’t ever bought a sympathy card, but because, now that I’m a parent, this was the first time I could imagine this kind of pain in some measure. I have a little boy.
Hallmark was just not cutting it. I looked and looked. Eventually I think I settled on one that was blank inside. I remember being frustrated that all the sympathy cards were just…so…pretty.
I’ve come to use a phrase since Felicity’s death: Hallmark answers.
Hallmark seems to offer comfort and explanation too quickly or lightly. Unfortunately, real people do this too sometimes. I think this tendency, even when offering “spiritual” comfort and explanation, comes from an inability to accept or understand grief.
I know that I was this kind of well-meaning comforter before we lost Felicity. People in too much pain made me nervous. I wondered if they might be losing their faith, so I felt the need to say something quick to patch up their brokenness. I was unable to easily reconcile my view of God with the pain I encountered.
The result of this kind of nervousness and discomfort is often Hallmark answers—flippant comfort. It’s as if when we say something like, “God is good. God is good,” we’ve fixed the problem for ourselves. But where does that leave the brokenhearted?
Hearing that God is good doesn’t always feel good. For people who are walking through deeply painful times, knowing that God is good can actually make things feel worse, because if this is goodness….
Hallmark is too pretty; Hallmark is too decisive; Hallmark is too composed.
None of the things your grieving friend is feeling can be described with these adjectives—pretty, decisive, composed.
The problem isn’t that Hallmark answers are false. They’re just inadequate because they don’t get deep enough to touch the pain. If you haven’t entered the person’s pain, even declarations of God’s goodness or sovereignty can feel like Hallmark answers.
Speaking into someone’s pain requires empathy. Choked words through tears are empathetic. Offering supplications and prayers with loud cries and tears, like Jesus, is empathetic. Speaking a verse with a posture of “I don’t understand how this all fits with your pain, but…” is empathetic.
A few months ago I attended my first baby dedication since we lost Felicity. I knew this would be hard, but our dear friends were having their beautiful little boy dedicated. I wouldn’t have missed it.
Right before the service began, I was really struggling. I’m sure it was obvious to anyone who saw me in the commons. At that moment, a woman passed by with her family. I knew her story a bit, but I’d never had a conversation with her in my life. What I knew is that they have a twelve-year-old, blind son with severe autism and stunted growth. And I knew that this woman nearly died of breast cancer a few years ago. She hugged me tight and spoke through teary eyes, “God is faithful.”
That was all. And it was incredibly powerful for me.
The point is not that you have to have suffered more than someone to comfort them; you just need to empathize. There was no question in my mind that she knew my pain. I discovered that once you have entered someone’s pain, then you are in the place to offer comfort, and it won’t be from Hallmark.
All things work together for good. He gives and takes away. God is faithful and good.
(Read other posts in this series.)