by Jemar Tisby, Co-Founder
The tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut this past week reminds us of our helplessness. We wonder what we could possibly do to comfort those most severely affected by this incomprehensible trauma. What words, what gestures could bring light to the darkness?
I wonder what I would do to serve the afflicted. I am probably worse than most at consoling the suffering. Seeing another person’s tears of sorrow washes my mind clean of anything intelligent to say. I usually fumble my way into trite platitudes or clumsy words of comfort.
Even though I’m a horrible example of how to help the suffering, all of us, at some point, will need to uplift someone brought low by calamity. You may be everyone’s first choice of a confidant or, like me, you may be woefully inept at easing acute pain. But as someone who has been comforted, I say: allow the suffering a moment to mourn.
It’s Alright to Mourn
Mourning is an appropriate and logical emotion in the face of loss. It is not sinful or shameful to mourn. There is a time to mourn (Ecc. 3:4). James even commands it as a prerequisite to exaltation (Js. 4:9). Jesus wept over Lazarus (Jn.11:35) and grieved over Jerusalem (Mt. 23:27).
But allowing someone time for sadness is difficult. In an age of information saturation and action orientation we are tempted to move too quickly past our sadness and onto solutions. We jump to answering the questions, avenging the wrongs, enacting the policies, and venting our rage. But anyone who has ever suffered through adversity knows—-feelings come first.
How can we truly be present with those whose feelings overwhelm them? While there are many responsible and godly ways to be with people in their suffering, here are four practices that others have used to help me through painful times.
1. Let the person talk.
Give the sufferer the opportunity to express their feelings in words. Turn off the cell phone (“off” not “vibrate”), cancel your appointments, and listen. Let the person label their lamentations. Naming our afflictions is the first step to relieving them.
Some people process verbally and will have no problem sharing their reactions. Others are more reserved and may need help. Ask them open ended questions like: “How are you feeling right now?” “Tell me what you’re thinking.” “What are you praying?” and “Say more about that.”
2. Demonstrate that you really hear the person.
I remember after the death of a loved one I felt isolated. It seemed as if I had been transported onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper and I was looking down at the world through a glass window. Everyone was hustling by and going about their normal lives while I was stuck in a detached, suffocating, lonely room. “No one knows what I’m going through. No one can understand what this feels like,” I thought.
While we can never fully enter into another person’s experience and completely understand it, we can demonstrate that we’ve sincerely heard their pain. Repeat the person’s words back to them. Summarize what they’ve said. Use phrases like “So are you saying…?” and “Do I have this right?”
3. Let the silence linger.
Our culture has grown uncomfortable with silence. We seldom experience moments of true quiet in the cacophony of our daily lives. If we do find pockets of peace we have to carve them out with great intentionality. As a result, we can be nervous during a lull in conversation. As soon as there’s a break in the dialogue we search frantically for words to fill up the space.
But allow emptiness to hang in the air. More words means more thinking about a response, more processing of information. Silence can mean meditating, marinating, and being. We need to feel the weight of silence in order to properly bear the load of our sorrow.
4. Employ appropriate physical touch.
Sometimes we forget the simple healing that a touch can bring. Mark 10:16 says, “And [Jesus] took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” Ecclesiastes 3:5 says there is “a time to embrace.” And the father of the prodigal sons embraced and kissed the younger son upon his return (Lk. 15:20). Although we have all been made skeptics in light of many abuses, appropriate contact can communicate more in a single moment than thousands of words in a protracted conversation.
Mourn but with Hope
Give sufferers the time to mourn and process their feelings before jumping to answers and actions. But remember that as Christians we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Our obligation as members of the household of faith is to remind others–tenderly and patiently–that we have a sure hope in Jesus. He is the difference between sadness and depression. He is the dividing line between sorrow and desolation.
Jesus is our hope because on the Cross He has demonstrated that the heinous murder of the most innocent person who ever lived can be redeemed. His death brings life to anyone who turns to Him in faith. So we weep with those who weep (Ro. 12:15), but we cling to the slender, delicate thread of hope that will surely uphold all those who believe.