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Posted: 4/19/2015
The Need for Our Presence during Grief
"I Wouldn't Know What to Say"
conforting hands

How often have we used the excuse, "I Wouldn't Know What to Say" as a reason to avoid going to a funeral, visiting a family in crisis, or simply "being there" with a phone call for a hurting friend? I know I have. Probably more times that I like to admit.

This Reflection isn't as related to faith issues as some are, and it doesn't pertain only to people of faith. A call to comfort the grieving is a part of most faith traditions (perhaps all), and it is really a role we play within the total human family. While care-giving is not a professional area of expertise, I have done research in the area and have designed and taught courses in helping people understand grief and how to support those in grief. I offer some of those thoughts here.

Some people find it easy and natural to reach out to those in sickness, in grief from a loss, or in a traumatic situation. Many of us, however, find doing so quite difficult ... even when we sincerely want to show our support. Often, what holds us back is in that statement, "I don't know what to say." The short advice (and maybe the best) is you don't have to say anything. You just have to be there.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks had an enlightening piece on helping (and not hurting) those grieving. (A link to that column, The Art of Presence [Jan. 21, 201]), is in the resources below.) Much of his column was based on a Sojourners article by Catherine Woodiwiss. (That article is also a link in the resources.) Some suggestions and cautions from these sources are most helpful. In the following, I share some of these suggestions and mesh them with my own thoughts. (I encourage you to read the full articles by Brooks and Woodiwiss listed below. They expand on these suggestions and provide additional ones.)

Do be there. Thinking that those in grief need space and privacy is usually a mistake. Most people need the presence of others. People grieving often report the pleasant surprise of unexpected folks who "showed up," and disappointment in those who didn't or were too busy ... or were afraid. Woodiwiss advises, "It is a much lighter burden (for the one grieving) to say, 'Thanks for your love, but please go away,' than to say, 'I was hurting and no one cared for me.' If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence."

The grieving are in a different zone. When trying to support those who grieve or are hurting, it is helpful to remember that the situation they are in is not the same as ours. Life inside the grieving zone is not the same as for us outside that painful zone. Even if we have our share of personal grief experiences, we really don't know what life and feelings are like for the other person inside that zone. Realize that the person inside the zone may not hear our words the same as we mean them from our perspective outside the zone. Also, the words and actions of those inside this zone may not be what we would expect before they became surrounded by grief. We may think we know the kind of world they are experiencing, but we probably do not. It helps to keep in mind that we are outside and they are inside.

"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares."
Henri Nouwen
Don't compare, ever. Our well-intentioned attempts to help by sharing our own experiences often sound trite or careless to the grieving person. We need to realize that the suffering person my not hear or interpret our words as we intend them. Comparing almost always carries the unstated message that the grieving person's hurt is not as bad as that of others. And some comparisons can be downright trivial. Woodiwiss recalls such a one: "I understand what it's like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too."

Even what we think a most thoughtful response may not be a helpful one. Priest and author James Martin, SJ, tells about an elderly nun, living in pain at a retirement home. The nun's religious superior came to visit and the suffering nun spoke about the constant pain she was enduring. Her superior suggested it would help if the nun thought of Jesus and his suffering on the cross. The elderly nun replied, "Jesus was only on the cross for three hours." Martin suggests, "Easy answers can do more harm than good."The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. James Martin, S.J., HarperOne, 2010, page 290.

Don't say it's all for the best or try to help the person make sense of things. (This seems especially important for those who come from a faith perspective.) The grieving person is probably not in a state to see the forest for the trees and isn't in a position to wrestle with abstract interpretations. Brooks suggests that even devout Christians should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. He says, "Theology is a grounding in the ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event." It has been my own experience that when we try to help by bringing up theological explanations we are usually trying to defend a God who doesn't need our defense. Brooks seems to sum it up well:

I'd say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain, and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple, and direct.

(Understand that these cautions are not meant to suggest we avoid talking theology with others or sharing our explanations for difficult-to-understand events. Doing such is a vibrant component of faith. The point here is that such talk during a time of grief is probably unnecessary, easily misunderstood, and often leads down a path we regret we started. It's simply not the time or place.)

Broken Glass Cake
Broken Glass CakeFor one Broken Glass Cake version, see this recipe

My mother was a devout Christian but rarely quoted the bible, didn't get involved in theological discussions, and never spoke in any religious platitudes. But, if someone was in need, she would shine with the gift of presence. Seeing a death notice of someone in the community, she knew exactly what to do: Whip up a Jell-O and Cool Whip concoction she called a "Broken Glass Cake"! And promptly, with cake in hand, she walked or drove over to visit. She didn't stay long, and I'd be surprised if she said much. But, to the hurting person, Mom and her cake probably spoke volumes of caring.Sometimes, in addition to visiting a grieving family, my mother also visited the deceased. Mom was a beautician, and often the family would ask the funeral director to have Esther Dodd come and fix the loved one's hair. I remember as a youngster thinking this a bit weird and asked Mom about it. She said she enjoyed doing it, "just spending time and talking to her while I do her hair." Even in death, Mom displayed the gift of presence.

We really should never stay away because we don't know what to say. "I'm sorry," is usually more than sufficient. It's probably wise to realize that when we go beyond "I'm sorry," we move into fragile and perhaps dangerous waters. And, we need to keep in mind that rarely does the grieving person remember our many words. What they remember is that we were there ... that we made a phone call ... that we sent a note.

And, if we go but feel the need to take more than our presence, just whip up a Broken Glass Cake.


A few years ago, I wrote a group study guide for a book by a pastor relating his personal trials of loss and anger at God: Sit Down God ... I'm Angry, by pastor R.F. Smith, Jr. In that guide, I included a few exercises that centered on this difficult question, "What do I say?" I've recreated some of these and have included them as a package in the Resources below. You might find these interesting. If you are in a discussion-type group, you might find them a valuable resource to stimulate thought and discussion about this topic that many of us find challenging. Feel free to use as you wish.

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Resources Related To this Reflection

David Brooks Full New York Times column by David Brooks: "The Art of Presence." (Jan. 21, 2014)
Grief Statue Full Sojourners post by Catherine Woodiwiss: "A New Normal: Learning from Trauma:" (Jan. 13,2014)
Study Guide pic Possible Group Activities (mentioned above) relating to this Reflection, emphasizing "What to Say?"
Yogi Berra "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours."
(I couldn't resist including this Yogi Berra quote somewhere!)

Link to this specific Reflection: