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Here is a reflection on the challenges of being with people during tragedy.

Nothing You Can Say Will Make Them Feel Better

by Rev. Dr. Martha R. Jacobs

Diana Bletter, in a recent opinion piece in the NY Times, mentioned, without knowing it, one of the things that stymies clergy and laypeople: What do I say and how do I say it? Should I say anything? Should I acknowledge the death (or “loss” as most prefer to call it — even though the person is not “lost,” they have died) or should I just ignore that the person is dealing with the death of someone they loved?

One of the workshops I used to offer was called, “What to Say, What Not to Say.” I would help people to not feel so helpless when they were visiting friends or family who were ill or were grieving the death of a loved one. For some reason, we seem to think that we need to have the answers for people’s pain and sadness. We don’t. What we need to have is the ability to sit with someone and not say anything. Nothing you can say will make them feel better. What will help is your just being there with them. Sitting next to them, holding their hand and letting them know that you are not going anywhere, is what most people need. They don’t need platitudes or to be told that their loved one “went to be with God” or that “God needed” their loved one, or that they were in “a better place” or other nonsensical comments that only makes the one who says it feel better, not the person who is grieving or in pain.

Nor do we truly “understand” someone else’s pain and grieving. We say that we “understand” to people without thinking. There is no way that we can really “understand” their feelings of loss and grief. We can “relate” — we can “hear what they say and be present with them,” but we don’t understand their loss because we all have different relationships with those we love and care for and we all come with different “baggage” and so, for example, how I feel about my mother and her death is very different from how my friend feels about her mother’s recent death.

I learned a very valuable lesson from spending time with my close friend whose mother died recently. We have been friends for more than 10 years. She was very supportive when my mother was dying. Knowing that her mother was also ill and had been living with and managing her disease for about four years, I wondered if we would be able to support each other in our soon-to-be common and yet very different losses.

Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, we both have been able to see God at work not only in our loss, but in our relationship. Because we were able to text, email and call each other, we were able to stay connected and give each other the support we needed. We also had a common language in our messages to each other. For example, when she texted me that she was “going deep but clean,” I knew exactly what she was referring to (my blog posting “My Wound is Deep but Clean”). Having a common language and a common (of sorts) experience has enabled us both to openly share our grief while at the same time, also be able to say those things that we need to say or feel knowing that the other “understands” in a new a deeper way.

Years ago, when I was working on my doctorate, I interviewed the late Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, former Senior Minister of The Riverside Church. Dr. Coffin had been the pastor when I first started attending Riverside. At the time I visited him, he was dying and since my doctoral work was on dying and how clergy have a hard time dealing with dying and death, I knew that Dr. Coffin would be an amazing resource for me. While talking about how clergy deal (or don’t deal) with death, Dr. Coffin mentioned that he used to comfort his parishioners who had children who had died and thought that he had done a “fair job” of being with them. But once he experienced the death of his son Alex (his sermon given less than a week after Alex’s death is amazing), he said he was able to relate to those parents in a new and deeper way. As I deal more and more with my own mother’s death, I am coming to have a new and deeper appreciation and understanding of Dr. Coffin’s observation. I am grateful for the wisdom he shared and the ability to relate on a deeper level with my friend and with others who have dealt with the death of a parent.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that I “understand” their grief or loss or that I equate it with mine; I am saying that in going through my own grief, I am more able to better “understand” the depth of their feelings. The most important thing is to be present — not to have the answers or the need to “do” something. We often forget the most powerful tool we have is ourselves and our ability to be compassionate and remind people of hope for the future.

Addendum: As I write this, Hurricane Sandy has done its damage. Lives lost, homes destroyed, cities and towns devastated. Again, the best and most powerful tool we have to help people through this is ourselves – our ability to be present to those who have lost so much — present and compassionate — knowing that we can’t make it “better” nor do we truly “understand” their losses, but we can be present with them and eventually assist them as they rebuild their lives and homes. We remind people that they are not alone — that not only are we present, but God is present as well. We bring hope when we don’t try to make excuses or make sense of what has happened. Our unconditional love and presence is all that we need bring.