Certainly, there are important differences to be drawn between people who are suffering (ie, a terminal illness), and those who are mourning or grieving. And of course, different cases of "grieving" can look quite different-- a person who is recently widowed has quite a different set of circumstances from one who, say, has been recently divorced. (Even 2 recently widowed people's grief processes can look unimaginably different from the other's, regardless of how similar their situations seem "on paper".) So, I can't pretend to speak on behalf of all people grieving or suffering everywhere. (In fact, I was just sharing with a friend last night how there are so many "self-help" books on bookshelves that seem to try to boil down my situation-- grieving, single parenthood, etc...-- into a 5-step process, or a matter of right-and-wrong, or a check-list... and frankly, it just doesn't apply to me. Either I'm a freak, or the author is full of crap. Or maybe a bit of both.) However, there are similarities, too, we must admit, between individual journeys through grief, pain, suffering, mourning... "HEALING", we'll call it. (Indeed, sometimes a wound is so fresh and painful that we can't possibly fathom that we are actually already "healing". But many medical experts will acknowledge that the healing process indeed begins with the sensation of pain. Pain is not the absence of healing... it's the advent of it. Without pain, true healing cannot proceed.) Even those who are "dying" (as Leslie was), are still truly in the midst of their own journey of healing. So what do we do when we find ourselves in relationship with a "healing" person? (No matter how casual or intimate that relationship is... it is still a relationship.) How do we help? What do we say? What do we NOT say? How do we LOVE them?
An important part of the dynamic in a relationship between one who is suffering and one who is trying to come alongside the suffering person, is simply that the one who is suffering needs to be open to it. This is bad news, for all of you out there who have loved ones who are just simply unwilling to let you in. (But be careful, though, in your assessment of who is actually unwilling to "let you in". I know VERY FEW people who are truly unwilling to be loved. In fact, most who are truly this way are diagnosable with some sort of clinical disorder. Don't mistake "hard to love" with "unloveable"... don't mistake "reluctant to share" with "unwilling to share".) No matter how those of us who are "healing" want to hoard our sorrow or pain all for ourselves, we need to come to the realization that a) though our case may be somewhat unique, we still are indeed "suffering" like so many others, in different circumstances from our own; and b) it is good for our own souls and the souls of others to indeed let others "in" to our experiences. This is the divine plan of community. Humanity. The Church. The "social Gospel" (as it's been called) of Jesus. That being said... I just want to preface what I'm about to share with the firm assertion that there is no rule of thumb. No 5-step process to coming alongside a fallen or broken brother. No blueprint for loving those in greatest need.
With that being said, here's the best I can come up with, for now, from my own experience, and sharing in the experiences of others who are at various levels of their own "healing journeys". It's rough... it's not balanced... it may not seem "fair" for you outsiders-looking-in, as far as journeys of suffering are concerned. But it's real. I'll lay it out kind of as a quick reference tool... a list of "dos and don'ts". And I encourage dialogue on this! I'm still learning myself! These lists may need editing, amending, abridging, etc... in future blog posts. Please, leave your affirmations and dissentions alike-- your encouragement and discouragement from what you read-- in the "comments" section of this post, for all to see... this is such a healthy exercise for us all to embark on together... truly God-honoring... So, with a prayer to God and plea to you all for grace, I humbly give you my "Dos and Don'ts"... How to come alongside one who is suffering... or mourning... or healing... or whatever:
- DON'T TRY TO FIX IT. Suffering is not something to be rescued from. It is something to be endured. It is God who heals. Not you. If your motive is to rescue someone, go to the Humane Society shelter and adopt a pet. If your motive is to love somebody, just be willing to abide with a person in their suffering, without trying to fix it.
- DON'T GIVE UNINVITED ADVICE. If they want advice, they'll ask. If you're giving advice, you're just trying to "fix it". As a matter of fact, it just may be that your "healing" friend has more to teach you than they have to learn from you.
- DON'T BE CLICHE. Yes, God has a plan. Yes, this too shall pass. Yes, Leslie is better off now. Yes, God is in control and He hears our prayers. But frankly, these are not truths to be uttered in passing, when one when one is grasping for words and can think of nothing else to say. If you've read it in a Hallmark card, just don't say it... no matter how true. (Indeed, if it's on a Hallmark card, just send them the card.) To the person who is suffering, hearing such things just gives the impression that the person doing the "encouraging" has no idea just how badly this sucks... that the person doing the speaking is really just trying to make him/herself feel better, and not really interested in sharing in the pain. Again, I am not dishonoring the truth of such well-known spiritual foundations. On the contrary... I'm just saying that some truths are actually dishonored or cheapened when they're offered as a band-aid, as a greeting of sorts, or as a passing blurb.
- DON'T ASSUME YOU CAN "RELATE". It's one thing to try to understand and come alongside someone in their suffering. It's completely another to use someone's predicament as an opportunity to share your own sob story. The fact that your 90-year-old grandmother died following a stroke last year may be an unfortunate fact. But what you learned through the course of that experience is not likely to be applicable to your friend who just lost their 9-year-old daughter to leukemia. In fact, something that helped you when your own daughter died of leukemia might not even be helpful to that friend, either. NEVER say, "I understand just what you're going through, because..." Even if you think you can relate. It is much more fruitful to just say, "I can in no way fathom just what you're going through. I am sorry."
- DON'T AVOID THE OBVIOUS. Don't pretend that nothing's wrong. Certainly, there is something to be said for just letting a friend escape their misery and have a conversation about something else. But you need to always be aware... be prepared to "go there"... be prepared to cry, to listen, to love.
- DON'T AVOID THE PERSON. This might sound silly to have to say. But I know a family who, after the tragic death of a loved one, was literally abandoned by their church. I know of a man whose friends stopped calling, stopped asking to hang out, stopped loving them after being diagnosed with a terminal disease. "Not knowing what to say" is NOT an excuse for abandoning your friend or loved one. In fact, it is all the more reason to PURSUE them.
- DON'T BETRAY TRUST. Don't gossip. If you are fortunate enough to have been allowed "inside"-- into the more intimate spaces of a suffering friend's heart and mind-- honor that by keeping it between the two of you. If you want, you may ask if you can have specific people (your family, your friends, your small group) pray for the matter. But don't assume that just because they shared it with you, that they want all of your friends knowing about it-- or even praying about it. If I'm on a date, and my date offers me a taste of her wine (certainly a bold and intimate gesture), what would she do if I'd take the sip, and then get up from the table and go around the restaurant with her cup, offering sips of her wine to all the other patrons? Just because a friend shares with you a sip from his or her cup, it doesn't mean that it is in fact your cup to share with others.
- BE PATIENT. There is no universal timeline. Don't dare to come alongside a person unless you are willing to persevere in patience... even if the person is never "healed" by your definition.
- BE KIND. Gentle. A healing heart is fragile. Be kind even when the one you're being kind to is not. If you're not willing to take a punch and answer with a hug or at least a kind word, don't get into the ring.
- REMEMBER: IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. If your suffering loved one snaps, pushes you away, does not accept your gestures, lashes out, crawls into a hole and avoids the light of day... Let it roll off your back-- do not let it affect how you are able to love them. It's just not about you. Likewise, if you're fortunate enough to find a word that actually brings encouragement, don't take credit. Give the glory to God, and just be happy for the one who is suffering, that they're actually encouraged. (As a side-note, this one was extremely difficult for me, as I learned to come alongside Leslie in her life-long struggle with depression... I know many out there can relate.)
- HUG OFTEN. I don't care if it's weird. I don't care if they don't seem like the "touchy-feely" type-- or if you're not the "touchy-feely" type. There are actually clinical studies out there about the positive correllations between "healing" and "physical personal contact". If your loved one side-steps your efforts, try again later. To avoid hugging is to make a person feel as though he's been quarantined. My grief is not contageous by contact. Your love is though. Let me have it!
- LISTEN. Just listen. Even if it's hard. Shut up and listen. Or to be more proper/biblical about it: "...be quick to listen, slow to speak..."
- PRAY!! Offer to pray with the suffering person. Pray FOR the suffering person, every time the person enters your mind. Sure, pray for "healing", but don't just stop there. Pray for peace. Pray for revelation. Pray for strength to endure. (Both for your loved one, and for yourself, as you come alongside.) Ask what it is they need prayer for. If you find that you've gone a single day without praying for a person... well then... I guess you're not really "coming alongside", are you? Of all the gestures people have done for us through our "journey"-- all the gifts, all the acts of service, words of encouragement...-- it is the prayer of our friends, families, and even strangers for which we are most grateful.
- SHARE YOUR PRAYERS. Be specific. Send a note, or tell them when you see them... For example: "Yesterday, I was thinking of you-- you were just heavy on my heart. And I prayed specifically for peace, and that you could just sleep through the night."
- ALLOW FOR SPACE. Not to contradict "DO #4"... but sometimes, a person just needs some space. We just need to be alone sometimes. If you're wondering whether a person needs space or not... simply ask... "Do you just need some space right now?" This is a welcome question, speaking from experience, more so than "how can I help?". (Refer also to "DOs" #1 and #3, if you find yourself trying to love a suffering person who just needs space.)
- GIVE RANDOM, THOUGHTFUL GESTURES. The best things we've received from people are the random, heart-felt notes... just to tell us they're thinking of us and praying for us. Or maybe, a box of cookies in the mailbox with a hand-written card. Or maybe a gift-card for Caribou with a note, "Coffee on me! I'd love to join you. Anytime. But no offense if you just want to enjoy this alone." Oh... and when you give random thoughtful gestures... attach no strings. Don't even expect a thank-you. Certainly don't expect a special seat at the greiving table. The fact that your friend received the gesture should be gratitude enough. (But don't, by the way, ask them whether they actually received it... this comes off as begging for a slap on the back. If it's that big of deal, send it certified mail or in some way that requires a signature.)
- BE PERSONAL IN YOUR COMMUNICATION. Tell the person specifically what they mean to you... tell them specifically how their struggle is affecting your own life-- what you're learning, how you're losing sleep, how you've been encouraged, how you've struggled... even how you're angry at God or questioning His goodness. This most certainly does NOT contradict #3 above. In fact, I can speak on behalf of Leslie, that she just cherished the realization that her own journey was encouraging, challenging, revealing, etc... to others. That God was using her to reach and minister to other people. (This continues to be the greatest source of encouragement in my own ongoing journey.) (NOTE: See #4 in the "DON'Ts"... Do not mistake this "DO" to mean that you should be personal in relating your own story to a person who is suffering, in an attempt to show that you somehow "understand what they're going through".)
- SAY SOMETHING. BUT SAY LITTLE. It's not okay to never talk about it or pretend someone isn't suffering. Granted, someone may not want to talk about their suffering at a given minute. But it is always a good call to just simply say privately, "I'm sorry you're going through what you are." Or, "I've been praying for you like crazy. Just wanted to let you know that." Or, "You've been on my mind a lot. I'd love to talk sometime." Or whatever. And be prepared to move on in the conversation on to a non-related topic. But also, be prepared to just linger there for awhile.
- SPEAK AND ACT IN LOVE. Every word. Every deed. Every prayer. Cover it all in love... measure every motive with I. Cor. 13, and ask, "am I acting in LOVE here?": 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails.
- LISTEN TO THE SPIRIT. The Holy Spirit, that is... If you're not a Christ-follower, I guess you can go ahead and disregard this one. But for those of you who call yourselves "Christians", this is one of the precise reasons why Jesus left us His Holy Spirit... to know how to love each other more fully into the grace, peace, joy, and truth of God. How do you know what's from the Holy Spirit, and what's just that burrito you had for lunch? Ask yourself, "Is this thought, word, gesture, etc... a 'fruit of the Spirit'?" "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Gal. 5)
I could truly spend more time on this, and indeed, I hope to, via your comments, and perhaps subsequent posts. In the meantime... I guess I'll just wrap it up by saying, "Love each other well. Abide with one another in love. Don't fix. Don't rescue. Just abide."