Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Consoling the Grieving With Awkwardness and Goodwill

As you probably know, I don't write an advice column.  All of my posts are the fruit of my thought-life and experience, shared for your entertainment or very optimistically, to offer hope or help.   I have very few thoughts I am willing to impose on others as ideal or best-practice.  I generally assume people have already thought about what they are doing or saying and are motivated by their own reasons, in which case advice is neither sought nor appreciated.


I've been in a few situations lately, which have stirred something within me.  I've stayed up late writing about it, only to leave it again, afraid to offend or create scandal.  These situations involve being at someone's side whose world has been turned upside down by the death of someone they love.  I've been there at different stages for different people - during the dying, at the death, at the moment they learned about the death, days and months later.  

I count every one of these moments as a privilege and something sacred.  But, they are uncomfortable.  And yet, what is just as uncomfortable, is finding myself cringing in these same moments.

Not cringing at the love, which manifests itself as pain, tears, and grief in every form, but at what little we have to offer in the way of words.  But, we use them anyway.  And they fail to land in the heart of the hearer.  My fear is not that they do little good, but have the potential to harm.  To create distance.  A feeling of not being understood.

If there is little else, there is always a lot of goodwill in anyone at the side of a grieving person.  It is not an easy place to be.  We are likely struggling with our own grief and trying to help another with theirs.  We struggle to understand why spouses leave widows, children leave parents, parents leave children, and how full-term babies can die on their birth-day.  

We no more understand these things than the man on the moon.  But, if we're Christians, we know God is involved, so we run to the safe-place.  God's will.  It's the only way we can preserve our sanity and our faith.  This is all we have, and consequently, many times, what we offer to the grief-stricken.

In our attempt to console a grieving person, we offer the only comfort we can find for ourselves.  We remind them that the death of the one they loved is "for a reason".  "All part of God's plan".  Or that "God needed him/her more than you did."  Said another way, "All is as it should be."

If the grieving say and believe these things, then by all means, we can readily agree (if we believe them, too).  But, unless we're asked for our opinion, we should let the grieving one take the lead here.  It is hard to receive, "All is as it should be" when every fiber of your being says, "Nothing is as it should be."  

1 Corinthians 2:11 says, "For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?  So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."

We can know God is good.  We can know that He will bring good out of everything, as Romans 8:28 proclaims ("We know that in everything God works for the good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."), but we cannot know what God is thinking when he commands or allows a person to die.  We would do well to remember this when our turn comes to comfort the grieving.    

When someone is grieving, even a person with great faith, it is very possible that the God they believe in changes.  Maybe forever.  If you believed someone was responsible for causing you greater pain than you ever could have imagined, would it be any immediate consolation that the person responsible thought it out thoroughly ahead of time?    

The box made of our thoughts about God and how we relate to Him shatters.  But, we know God doesn't change.  God is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  We change. Understandably so, and probably for the best.  Ultimately, if we don't abandon faith altogether, we are forced to let God be God and to accept what we cannot know or understand.  An uncomfortable, but properly ordered relationship between creature and Creator.

No one has ever had the nerve to say it to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if amidst their distress, they were thinking, "To hell with God's plan."  The incredible thing is that God's plan did go to hell, as we're told in the Apostle's Creed: https://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/creed2.html.  He made provision for that, too.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
 I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Even hell or our thoughts of what belong there cannot change Who has been there and rose again. Jesus Christ.   This is our Christian hope.  The hope of the resurrection.  We do not need to know God's thoughts to know history.  

I am not an expert on any of this.  I believe everything we profess in the Creed.  But, I also believe the kindest thing can be to hold off on holding it out as our means to comfort.  Maybe I'm projecting my pain onto the grieving, but my heart hurts for them when their friends and family take away their freedom to express their pain, bewilderment, doubt, or anger with "God's plan".

 I thank God for the faith he has granted to me and the many truths related to it.  But, that doesn't mean they are a source of consolation in every moment, especially when you just want to be held.    

Please know that this post is the fruit of a growing conviction.  I have done and said everything here that I've advised against.  But, until we see God, Face to face, can I challenge you as I challenge myself, to grow more comfortable with your discomfort when consoling the grieving?

Appreciate the power of your presence.  Don't overestimate your need to say the right thing.  They will remember you were there, but probably won't remember what you said.  Stick with what you know.  Need some ideas?  "I love you."  "I'm sorry.  This is really hard."  "I don't know why this happened."  "Lord, increase our faith."  And if pressed, "God is going to bring good.  I don't know when or how, but I believe that He will."

God's plan reveals itself.  It doesn't need our words to herald it in.  Yet, I believe we are a big part of it - showing up in all of our awkwardness and goodwill, day after day.  Our presence, faith, hope, and love are our greatest gifts to the grieving, and other than God himself, the only remedy for suffering.  "The only thing worse than suffering, is suffering alone."  (Unknown source)


  1. Thank you for your thoughts and your ministry Heidi . I can tell you that I am struggling right now with my faith. I especially do not feel that when someone says " it was Gods plan or God has a reason we do not know why " that those words are comforting. I know if those words are true I may not understand or ever know why but why does Gods plan have to hurt me so much. I do not think God has a plan when people die or suffer. It is part of the human fragility of our bodies. Maybe the sins of others cause death, illness, or accidents. I do not think God is involved in all deaths. Why would he allow such horrible things to happen if he is a God of love and mercy? Maybe I am not making sense since I am in the middle of grief and trying not to be mad at God! But I know it is hard to console and be consoled and thank you for being there for all of us!

    1. Tricia, my heart aches for your heart. You're making perfect sense and I'm asking the same questions you're asking, followed by, "Lord, increase our faith."

      The Book of Wisdom has some interesting things to say. 1:13 "because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living." 3:1-4 "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality."

      I admire your effort not to be mad at God, but I understand being mad, too!

      Thank you for letting us walk beside you. Answerless, and all.