We’ve all been there; standing next to someone who has just lost a loved one. They are visibly saddened by the death of their beloved. Their pain is palpable and you want to do the right thing to bring them comfort. But what is that? What do you say? What should you say? What should you not say?
There is an appointed time for everything,and a time for every affair under the heavens.A time to give birth, and a time to die;a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.A time to kill, and a time to heal;a time to tear down, and a time to build.A time to weep, and a time to laugh;a time to mourn, and a time to dance. – Ecclesiastes 3
Comforting the sorrowful is one of our spiritual works of mercy. As Ecclesiastes informs us, for every beginning there is an end, where there is life there is inevitable death. Everyone knows sorrow and everyone dreads the loss of a loved one. Especially within this Year of Mercy we should reflect on applying mercy to the sorrowful through the perspective of Christ.
Our culture abhors the idea of death, and as a result it does not know what to do in the face of it. Our faith, in contrast, gives us the hope of resurrection and celebration of a life lived in Christ’s presence. In contrast to fear, we eagerly are called to hear our Savior say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share your Master’s joy.” All the same, despite this joyous reception, we still miss their loss, and it is in this loss and isolation from earthly joy, that we are called to comfort.
When it comes to comforting the grieving, first think of how you yourself grieve and what gives you comfort. A genuine response is always more fitting than a throw away phase of condolence. Because of our culture’s fear of death, many of us never know how to respond to grief. We offer a “My condolences” or “Sorry for your loss,” but to comfort we need to get our hands dirty and take on that suffering as Jesus did by sharing the load of grief.
Sympathy is a matter of acknowledging another’s hardships and trying to comfort them. Empathy is a matter of sharing their hardship, either through experience or putting yourself in their shoes. Of these two, empathy is the greater response and more Christian response. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be like him, especially in his suffering.
Here are some tips for comforting the sorrowful through empathy:
- It’s OK to cry, touch arm/shoulder, hug
- Focus on remembering memories of the deceased
- Avoid common phrases like “She’s in a better place” or “She’s looking down on us now.” Instead, focus on what you do know of the person. Share a pleasant memory that you have.
- If asked why this happened, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
- Never say it was God’s plan or it’s for the best.
- Empathy is a matter of sharing the experience with the grieved person, not trying to explain for it.
Years ago, there was a story that circulated the internet of a small boy that saw an old man sitting on a bench in a park. The man was crying and that caught the attention of the wee child who left his mother’s side and walked over to where the gentleman was sitting. The mother watched as the boy climbed up on the bench and looked gently into the man’s face. The man, touched by the boy’s gesture, began to weep more visibly. The boy also started to cry. After a few minutes, the man hugged the boy and sent him back to his mother’s side. When the boy returned, the mother asked him why he felt a need to go over to the man. The boy responded, “He looked like he needed help crying. I wanted to help him do that.”
This small child intuitively knew what to do; comfort comes from entering into the sorrow. We should remember that the best way to bring comfort is through empathy which is the ability to share their experience. The comfort you are offering through this approach assures the grieving that they are not alone in their hardship. If you are asked for clarity as to why this happened, answer that you trust in a loving God who has gone through what we’re going through and take consolation in his empathy for us when we show empathy for others.
By Matthew Canter