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.
Being 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.