In a recent conversation with a friend who is going through a particularly difficult period in her life right now, she asked me, “Why is it that when people hear of my plight, they immediately plunge into stupidity?” She went on to share details of what some people had said to her when they heard her news – horror stories of the “friend of a friend” or a distant cousin who had that “exact same thing” happen; stories of what others would do if they were in her position and other not-so-helpful advice.

As I reflect on this situation and my own experiences of pain, grief or loss, I am reminded that just being present is the most important thing we can do for another who is going through a difficult time. I have often heard people comment that they don’t know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or recently lost a loved one through death. Quite honestly, in my opinion, less is more. When people ask me what to say, I tell them to keep it simple: tell them you are sorry; offer a hug, if appropriate and the person is receptive; tell them you care about them and/or you are praying for them; and then SHUT UP and follow the person’s lead. General statements like “call if you need me” are typically not very helpful to people overwhelmed with grief or loss; they often don’t know what they need at this time. Rather, practical offers of assistance are better. Examples include bringing meals to the house, caring for children or pets, or taking care of other household needs like watering the garden or mowing the lawn.

As people of faith, we often want to share a word about God in situations like this. While it is important for people in crisis to know of God’s presence with them, extreme caution must be used. A few months ago, I posted a “guest reflection” about God’s presence in crisis written by my friend Cordelia. I share a portion of that again here because I think it is relevant.

People say stupid things – even smart, theologically sensitive people – and I have been compiling a list in my head.  Here is my current list of comments that truly bug me:

1. “God is good.” This is usually the next sentence after sharing positive news as in “The test results came back and it is not cancer. God is good.” or “The baby is healthy. God is good.” What does this mean – that God wouldn’t be good if the cancer had returned or there had been complications with the birth? Are they saying that God is particularly blessing them or that God’s nature is provisional and dependent on our levels of comfort and achievement? I suspect that what people mean when they say this is that they are happy for good fortune and rejoice, giving thanks to God, but every time these things are said, I wonder what happens to the people hearing the words who have not received a positive diagnosis or good fortune. Do they feel forgotten by God and have we reinforced this feeling with this phrase?

2. “God is really testing you right now.” This makes it sound like a person in crisis is engaged in some sort of advanced placement or achievement test. Where are my number two pencils? If I do really well, what is my reward – an AP calculus test? Does this mean I get to test out of some even more painful part of my life? Do I get a certificate?  God is not testing me or you – God is with us, most especially during difficult periods in our lives, seeking to transform our pain and confusion, to redeem suffering and create wholeness.

3. “God will never give you more than you can handle.” This makes it sound like we are in the midst of a celestial fitness routine with God as trainer pushing us forward, urging us to do one more repetition, cheering us with “Just one more! I know you can do it,” driving us forward into achieving spiritual abs of steel or awesome emotional triceps. Life is not a test or an endurance routine. It is a gift.  Almost anything is too much to handle when we feel all alone; almost anything can be borne when we feel loved and supported.

Almost anything can be borne when we feel loved and supported. How true, and that love and support is best expressed through the gift of presence. That is the most important thing we can do for someone experiencing grief or pain. Just be present.

Until next time, peace …

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4 Responses to Presence

  1. Jean Gabl says:

    All of this is true, and we should all learn to handle these things better, but we also need to remember that even the people that say stupid stuff to us in our time of crisis truly do mean well, and they’re doing their best to express kindness when they don’t quite know how. So when it happens, just be grateful for friends that care, even if they don’t always know just how to show it.

  2. James Higdon says:

    Wow great advice:) Wouldn’t it be nice if we (meaning me) were smart enough to follow it instead of always having to think that we (me) need to say something theological and reflective:) Good advice for everyone, but maybe even more so for we pastors to remember!
    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Sue Misner says:

    Wonderful Robin! As a mother who lost her 5 year old son, I can say I get tired of the same old quotes – even though they mean well. I also am exhausted with people telling me how to come to terms with my grief and to become closer with God. They have NO idea about my relationship with God, so quit giving me advice. Just be there for me, I’ll ask if I need theological advice 🙂 Anyway, nice to hear someone else say what I think!

  4. Robin Dillon says:

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone.

    Jean, while it is true that people mean well and are often doing the best they know how to do, their statements can still be hurtful to the grieving person. This post was intended to get people (including myself) to think about their words before they speak. Even if we have had a similar experience to someone who is going through a difficult time, we can never know exactly what they are going through, as every person’s situation is different.

    Sue, thanks for adding perspective to this. I will never understand the incredible pain you have experienced through Wesley’s death, but your honesty sheds light on what is helpful and what is NOT. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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