Words of Comfort
Yesterday I was standing at a gravesite here in NY as my wife’s uncle was buried. It was 18 degrees and blowing enough to make the wind chill near zero. We were there to grieve with the family; his daughters, his sisters and other relatives. Although it was bone-chillingly cold we were glad to be there among family in this time of loss.
I never know quite what to say to tear-filled relatives of the recently deceased. I know that saying nothing or just mumbling “I’m so sorry.” sounds lame or even uncaring. I always grope for some words to say, some conversation to have, that will communicate how deeply I care about their pain and I come up short every time.
If there is someone out there who has written a book called “How to wisely and compassionately comfort the afflicted” or something like that, let me know. Until I see that book I tend to think that there are no such words; that every person is different and needs to grieve in their own way; that being there is the only sure step in the comfort process. But I wish we could offer more than just getting in our car and driving 600 miles north on a cold winter day just to stand there and say little if anything.
One thing I have learned is that, more often than not, evangelical Christians can make miserable comforters. My mother had a friend who used to go to every funeral of anyone she remotely knew; or even the funerals of relatives of someone she remotely knew. I used to call her the “funeral lady” because that was where I always saw her. She would go to hundreds every year.
She would walk into the room where a wake was being held; where various family members were sitting silently or engaged in quiet conversation. She would go from person to person holding their hands and saying things like “God will not give you more than you can bear.” Or “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Or “Everything happens as God plans.” Or a host of other platitudes. She would usually stay for 15 minutes or so and, when she left, leave most of the room in tears; leaving a trail of emotional destruction.
When my wife’s father died some years ago I had just boarded a plane to go on a ministry trip. I was not in the air ten minutes when she got the call he had passed away. In tears she called the man who was hosting the conference to ask him to inform me as soon as I landed. In her anxiety she said “This happened as the worst possible time.” His “comforting” answer came back in a flash. “God’s timing is always perfect.”
How could he fail to see that Peggy, a Christian since she was four, was just expressing anguish that I was not there and would indeed be unreachable for hours? What in the world made him think that it was a good time for a theology lesson on God’s perfect will? I sometimes wonder if we evangelicals think we are God’s PR agents; forever needing to spin circumstances to make him look good. If so, we are frequently terrible at our chosen task. A task, by the way, I see no evidence in the Bible we are commanded to do.
I’m not going to close with a series of wise suggestions on how to handle anguish and grief. I think I’d rather close with a request for such suggestions.