Death is one of those taboo topics in our culture. It is intimidating to witness the suffering which grief brings about, because we don't know how to respond and we realize that we do not have any answers. This makes us feel helpless and uncomfortable. Understanding grief will aid us in learning how to provide comfort for the grieving. The Old Testament figure, Job, knew grief intimately after loosing his children, property and health overnight. His experience gives a clear picture of what a grief-stricken person is going through:
1. Lack of appetite: "My appetite refuses." (Job 6:7)
2. Lack of sleep: "The night is long and I am full of tossing till the dawn." (Job 7:4)
3. Hopelessness: "My eye will never again see good." (Job 7:7)
4. Desire for one's own death: "I loathe my life." (Job 9:2)
5. Exhaustion: "God has worn me out!" (Job 16:7)
6. Tunnel vision: "...he feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself." (Job 14:22)
All these thoughts and emotions were very familiar to me in the years following our daughter Ani's death. Many wonderful friends recognized this and tried to help in any way they could. They made meals, took care of the kids, folded clothes and even cleaned the kitchen for the funeral reception. Their loving-kindness was truly overwhelming and appreciated.
Job also had some amazing friends. We usually don't acknowledge their extraordinary faithfulness and only see their heartless accusations, but these three men sat beside Job for an entire week without uttering a single word. Unlike his companions' initial response, in an attempt to comfort, our most common reaction is to speak too much and give answers which only seem insulting. Later-on, Job was given his share of platitudes and responded to his friends by asking: "How then will you comfort with empty nothings?" (Job 21:34) He sarcastically praises them with the words: "How you have helped him who has no power!" (Job 26:2) There were times when I was tempted to respond in a similar manner to "empty nothings" such as: "God needed another rose in His garden", "God wanted another angel in heaven", or "God has saved you child from growing up in sin." Human attempts to provide explanations ring hollow and therefore never bring relief. There are ways to bring comfort through the words we say, such as: "I am so sorry!", "I am grieving with you.", "I am praying for you." These simple statements bring reassurance that one is not grieving alone.
What a grieving person wants most is the comfort of your presence and a listening ear. Job expressed this well when he made the following requests: "Oh that you would keep silent!" (Job 13:5), "Let me have silence, and I will speak." (Job 13:13), "Keep listening to my words and let this be your comfort. Bear with me and I will speak." (Job 21:2+3)
Ultimately, though we need to be aware that we will only be able to provide relief to a certain degree. Recognizing that "God is the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction" (2. Cor. 1:3), we realize that only He can provide the supernatural peace, lasting encouragement and constant presence needed in this situation. One way we can help direct a grieving person to God is by offering to pray for them. There were times when my grief was so heavy that I would cry for hours. That is when I would pick up the phone and call my friend, Kim, who was always ready to pray for me. In these situations we sometimes need others to believe for us, by speaking out truths about God and ourselves. That is exactly what Kim did for me so that eventually I could echo Job, not only in his laments, but also in his deepened relationship with God, saying: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;" (Job 42:5)
Let us aim to be a true comfort to the grieving through acts of kindness, reassuring words, a listening ear, and a readiness to pray.
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God." (Isaiah 40:1)