11 February 2012

I don't know what to say

This is from my personal archives, and was published in my parish newsletter in November, 2009

Many years ago I went to the funeral of a young man. He was my boyfriend's friend, and I didn't know anyone there, certainly not the young man's family. As I walked through the receiving line, the man's mother pulled me into a tight hug. I said the only thing I could think of: “I'm so sorry for your loss.” It felt inadequate. Surely there was something else I should have said.

There are plenty of guides for people who are grieving. There are fewer resources for the friends and acquaintances. Well-meaning and loving people are often at a loss for what to say and what to do. Afraid of doing something wrong, they don't do anything at all. The result is that the bereaved feel abandoned, which adds more pain and sometimes anger to an already bad situation. So what should we do when we are called to support others?

Most people are familiar with the story of Job, a righteous man who was tested by God. He lost his children, his property, and eventually his health. We know that Job remained faithful and that God rewarded him. But Job's friends don't get a lot of attention.

When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2: 11-13

It doesn't seem like much. But just as there are lessons for us in Job's patience and faithfulness, there are also lessons for us in the actions of Elipahz, Bildad and Zophar. One of the most profound gifts we can give to others is our presence. Job's friends didn't hear the bad news and figure they would wait until they saw Job at the market to express their condolences. They didn't seem him sitting on the ground and decide to come back at a better time. They didn't try to make Job feel better with profound words. They simply entered into his grief so that he would not be alone with it.

Sitting silently with someone isn't easy for most people. The overwhelming urge is to babble on about how the dead person is in a better place, the newly single person is better off without that loser that used to be his wife. Or we want to encourage the bereaved, you'll find someone new, you'll be able to get pregnant again, someday all this will be a distant memory. Certainly there is a time and place for many of these statements, but it is not in the first moments of grief. In the beginnings of grief we are called simply to witness and be present.

Of course, we know that Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar each brought along a casserole. That was so obvious that the authors of Job didn't bother to record it. The gift of food relieves the burden of planning, shopping and cooking at a time when so much else requires attention. We can imagine that they performed other tasks as well. As friends of Job, they would have known about his allergies and preferences, and no doubt their wives and daughters fielded calls from less intimate acquaintances who wanted to be sure their gift was useful. One of them might even have taken on the task of organizing the gifts of food so that they didn't all arrive at once.

Eliphaz probably also carried with him letters of condolence from his acquaintances, simple notes that read something like this: “Dear Job, I am so sorry to hear about your loss. I want you to know that you are in my prayers. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you during this difficult time. Sincerely, Jacob.”

Perhaps Bildad sent word home to fetch a servant who could help with the washing up and other chores, as well as someone to help rebuild the damaged building and fences. There are a dozen different chores that get lost in the fog of grief. Zophar probably provided a few animals from his own herd, only what he could spare, to help Job begin to rebuild.

After seven days of sitting quietly, Job finally gives voice to his grief. His friends who so far have been doing all the right things start to make mistakes. They chide Job for losing hope. They start probing for ways that Job might have brought his troubles on himself. Surely, they think, Job made mistakes that could have been avoided. Surely Job brought these troubles on himself.

The theology that argues that the bad things in our lives are direct punishments for our sins isn't common in the Episcopal church. Most Episcopalians won't tell you that you could have avoided that car wreck if only you'd gotten up early enough to do Morning Prayer before work. But there are plenty of people who try to figure out why the bad thing happened. I think that comes from a desire to protect ourselves from the bad things that happen to other people. If the woman who miscarried drank too much coffee, if the couple who separated spent too much time at work, if the man who died smoked, then surely we won't come to the same end. Unpredictable events are scary, so it is easier to come up with a reason why it happened so that we can assure ourselves that it won't happen to us. But this line of reasoning does nothing to comfort the grieving, and has no place in our ministering to them.

Job's friends leave the story at this point, and Job starts arguing with God instead of mere mortals. Job gets the satisfaction of an answer from God, and was blessed with more children, more animals, more of everything because he was righteous. Despite these blessings, I imagine that Job still mourned his lost children, even as he delighted in his new family. He might have wept during prayers, seemingly for no reason. I wonder what his friends did then? Did they stay away, thinking that there was nothing they could say or do? Or did they go and sit by him, offering a hand on a shoulder, the comfort of touch? A year later, did they hesitate to talk to Job, not wanting to remind him of his loss? Or did they know that Job would never forget and that by offering their remembrances they made sure that Job knew he was not alone?

As many of you know, I was the person weeping during prayers. Sometimes I still am. Most people stayed away. But a few people came and sat with me, offering me a hand, or a tissue, a hug, or sent a note with a few words of assurance that I was loved and my loss was not forgotten. These gestures were small in that they required little time and no money, but they were immeasurably large in how much they meant to me. I learned through that experience that I had said the right thing at that young man's funeral; that I said as much as I needed to. I strive now to be that hand, that voice, that witness to others who sorrow. I invite you to look around at the people in your life, and see where you can be that witness.


  1. This is beautiful. I don't think I ever got to see the full version, though I remember you talking about writing it. I'm going to share it with the Caring Committee and Pastoral Care Associates at our church ... thank you for writing it, and for being there to hold the hands of so many of us. Sending love and light to your friends today.

    1. I can only hold hands because mine have been held.

      I wish we were better as a culture at talking about death.



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