Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.

 

37 thoughts on “Just Be There

  1. You are so right, Ann. I think we all try to do the same thing at times because we feel so helpless and want to do something to bring comfort to those we love not really understanding that just being there may be all they need. What they don’t need are people giving them there own experiences of grief, thinking that may make them feel better. It doesn’t. Everyone’s pain is different. When our friends or family are ready to speak they’ll let us know but even then our place should be to listen unless they ask a question. Sometimes they just need to talk it out to something out without hearing anything in return.
    Once again, as evidenced by the example with your friend, children seem to know better than adults what is most important.
    Great post.

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    • Thank you, George! I was reading a very good post by Jon Katz the other day, and he said that whenever he writes in his blog about a loss that he has had, some people almost always respond with a story about their own loss. I think you’re right in that they’re trying to say, “I know how you feel because I’ve been there, too,” but Jon Katz said that instead, it often feels as if its a competition as to who has suffered the most. As you say, the best thing we can do is simply be there and listen, without interrupting or judging.

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  2. So true and I actually had tears in my eyes as I read this Ann because it brought back so many memories for me. I so agree that it’s not the words, it’s the physical comfort and knowledge that we have someone close by who just cares and understands. No amount of words can take away the pain but the warmth of a hug can ease it. Children have it right. A lovely post Ann.

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  3. Just read “Just be there” and am in tears. You know Gary and I just lost our close friend and this is so timely for me. I will try to keep your words in mind when I talk with his wife which has been most days. PAtty K

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  4. Ann- This reminds me of something I heard once from a friend who was part of our church family in Cheney. A young lady was staying with her parents after the tragic death of her husband. The Mom said that your Dad came over to visit her and he just sat beside her and held her hand. The Mom said that was the most comforting thing he could have done and she was so very grateful for him. Even though I was young at the time-I still remember her talking about that. Your Dad was an awesome minister and obviously a wonderful person. I feel that you are an extension of him and have inherited his warmth and kindness. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Thank you for sharing that memory, Janie! It’s so nice to hear something about our parents that we didn’t know, especially when they are gone. My dad died in 2007, and I still miss him. Your kinds words mean so much!!! (And it is good to hear from one of my “old” Trinity Church friends, too!)

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  5. I think you are so right in what you say. Even in situations when there isn’t much we can practically do to help other than simply be there, even just this show of support may mean the world to a friend in trouble.

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    • You’re right! And I’ve heard of people who actually avoid showing up to visitations and funerals just because they don’t know what to say. When the truth is, you don’t have to say anything special at all…just show up!

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  6. This is beautiful, Ann. At my mother’s memorial service, I was so grateful for the presence of everyone there. Some of them said only “I’m sorry,” and that was enough.

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  7. I totally agree, Ann. In my line of work at any point in the day I might have a student walk in who is going through any number of issues, from struggling with a course to learning they have cancer. I used to feel like it was my job to say something to make them feel better or to solve their problems. I’ve learned that offering a tissue and a safe space for a good cry is usually what they really need.

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    • It’s hard to let go of our natural impulse to “fix things.” But you are so right: by providing your students with a safe space to express their grief, and simply sitting with them while they do that is best response. Your students are lucky to have you in their lives.

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  8. Being silently present means more then giving consolation through words that you both will forget… Such a beautiful post. You taught me to just be there, since I am also in the area where I advice a lot and I think I shouldn’t but I can’t help, I will try more to be just gently be present.

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