The Hope Within Us:
Bringing Comfort to the Bereaved
~By Nan Wright, Mother of Stephen Wright, April 2005
"The Ten Commandments for Comforters"
~from the book, Comforting the Bereaved by Warren and David Wiersbe.
February the 8th, 2001 was a beautiful, balmy day in Tennessee. My thirteen year old son, Stephen, went to the town park to ride his bike with friends. There, on his bike he jumped a little mound of dirt, fell to the ground, and was seriously injured. He was Lifeflighted to Vanderbilt Hospital's trauma center, but he died before we could reach the hospital by car. Stephen was our only child. Our world was shattered.
The following day, thumbing through my Bible, I asked God to give me a verse to hang on to during my great trial. I came to Psalm 89:1-2 and knew in my heart that this was the message God wanted me to cling to. Psalm 89:1-2 says:
I will sing of the Lord's great love forever;
With my mouth I will make Your faithfulness
Known through all generations.
I will declare that Your love stands firm forever,
That You established Your faithfulness in heaven itself.
In the midst of my great trial, God was asking me to trust Him. I was to lift up His name because of His great mercies. Just like Job, I was to come to the point where I could say,"Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him".
But I was not prepared for the trauma of grief. I did not realize that a human being could be inflicted with so much pain and still live. I agree with Isabel Fleece, author of Not By Accident, when she says:
I learned that the grace of God is sufficient, as He said, but I also learned that grace is not an anesthetic. The hours and days--and even months--that followed [my son's] death were so intense with pain that looking back, I wonder that [I] did not die. The hurt was so great, the suffering so extreme, that I am amazed that the human frame, frail as it is, can survive such a blast. And I believe it was only possible by the grace of God.
Grief is a very real and painful experience in the lives of God's people. Grief is extremely complex, consisting of a combination of sadness, anxiety, fear, doubt, guilt, loneliness, helplessness, and despair. The grieving one can experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, an inability to concentrate, and extreme physical weariness or exhaustion.
There are some who want to distance themselves from the bereaved. It may seem uncomfortable, even frightening to be around someone who is in such emotional pain and turmoil. They don't know what to say or do, so they say and do nothing. But, Children of God, in spite of the discomfort you may feel, I challenge you to learn the skills of bringing comfort to the grieving.
But first, let us think for a moment about the legitimacy of suffering. Lest anyone here thinks that suffering is not in God's plan for His people, let me read for you what God says on the subject. I Peter 4: 12,13,16 and 19 says,
12 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;
13 But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.
19 Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.
Just as God calls us to join in the fellowship of suffering, He also calls us to be His representatives to hurting people. We are to weep with those who weep. II Corinthians 1:3-5 says,
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
4 Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.
Just like Aaron and Hur who held up the arms of Moses during battle, we are to hold up the arms of our brothers and sisters during their darkest night. My husband, Greg, and I were so blessed to be in a church full of dear saints who held us up in the early days and weeks of our grief. They continued to care for us in many ways throughout the months and years that followed the loss of our son. I learned a great deal about ministry from those who ministered to us.
During this hour I will be talking about how to bring comfort to grieving people. As our guide through this topic, I am using "The Ten Commandments for Comforters" from the book, Comforting the Bereaved by Warren and David Wiersbe. They are quoted in the bold italics below.
The first Commandment for Comforters is:
1. Go to those who are bereaved as soon as possible, even if it is inconvenient for you.
In the midst of pain, anxiety, and deep sadness the grieving one needs to know that they are not alone or forgotten. It is not enough just to call a person to tell them you are praying for them. The bereaved need to see and feel the concern and the love you have for them. The worst thing you can do is to not do or say anything. To the one grieving, silence is like a stab in the heart, injury upon injury. When they need consolation but only find silence, they feel akin to the leper who is shunned by society.
If you don't know the person very well, a card with a personal note, a phone call or e-mail is okay. We received cards and e-mails from as far away as Australia, and we received many from total strangers. We were encouraged by each visit and each phone call, card and e-mail.
The night Stephen died, so many friends and family members came to be with us at Vanderbilt hospital that a conference room was opened up for us. We were amazed that all those people came to be with us. A friend drove us to the hospital and back home again. A friend of mine sat in the back seat of the car with me. When we returned home at around 9:00 that night, several friends stayed to eat with us. I had made an extra large pot of lentil soup that day. It was enough to feed a crowd.
We were in shock, and we didn't really know how much we needed those friends around us. But we did need them. I have read of people whose friends or relatives stayed with them in their home for several days. In Uganda it is a custom for friends to go spend four days in the home of the bereaved. We were glad for friends to be with us, but we also found we needed some alone time. I'm sure that on this point people will differ on what they need. Just ask them, but don't give anyone too much time alone. Loneliness is very much a part of grief. And there will be some people who do not want any time alone.
Let's move on to Commandment #2
2. Be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to react to words and feelings that may appear "un-Christian."
A person's initial reaction to his or her loss might be anger or bitterness or despair. But we must be gentle in our response, showing them Christ's love and holding up God's promises before them. We must not condemn them for having these very normal responses to tragic loss. But by our prayers for them, and by demonstrating compassion and offering real, tangible encouragement, we will be able to see God's healing work in his or her life. Grief work is hard work. And reaching out to the grieving is not for the faint of heart.
First of all choose your words carefully and most of all be a good listener. Mary Ann Froehlich, in her book An Early Journey Home, put it this way: (This is the grieving person speaking)
"Above all, listen to me….I have a roller-coaster relationship with God right now. One minute I feel safe in his loving arms and the next moment I am flooded with doubts and questions, feeling totally abandoned by him. He can handle it. I hope that you can too. Be my safe place to talk, cry, and feel totally accepted. I need my lifeline of friends now. I know that I scare you. You are wondering if this can happen to me, then it can happen to you. You may even try to find some reason for our loss to ease your own mind.
Please do not make packaged insensitive statements such as "Time heals all wounds," "I know how you feel," "Everything will be all right," "God will not give you more than you can bear," "At least you have three other children," "All things work together for good…" Please do not tell me about someone else's story that is sadder than mine or send me books on grief. Don't say or do anything to minimize my grief or try to fix me. This only says that you have no idea how deeply I am hurting."
The person experiencing deep grief is in shock. Their mind has shut down. They have difficulty concentrating. They can't handle reading serious or lengthy literature or listening to long sermons. Charlie Walton, who lost two teenage sons, and authored the book, When There Are No Words, said "I have decided that… at least for the first three months of your grief… your mind is somewhere else. You walk. You talk. You sit up and take nourishment. You appear to be fully inhabiting your body. But… if someone had the power to look inside your skull… they would see a note on the kitchen table of your mind. The note would say, 'Make yourself at home. I'll be back in three months.'"
The inability to concentrate actually lasts longer than three months for many people. A grieving person should postpone making important decisions. If they are thinking about moving or making some major change in their life, the bereaved should be encouraged to wait a year. Things will look different to them a year down the road. The home filled with memories which seems almost unbearable to look at may become their sanctuary and each memory a precious treasure. During intense and painful grief, the world is distorted. Nothing seems normal. Time seems to just hang in mid-air. Everything runs in slow-motion.
If you do give your grieving friend something to read, it should be short, or broken up into brief chapters such as a devotional book. In two or three months they may be able to handle more substantial reading. After the first three months or so, Greg and I did quite a lot of reading, and we became students of grief. But others may find it too difficult to read about someone else's pain.
My husband is blessed to work with Christians who were very kind and patient with him when we lost our son. He was given two weeks off, and then, when he went back to work he was given only one simple project to work on instead of the usual two or three. He was also told he could stay home with me if I needed him.
So, when comforting the bereaved, keep in mind that the first stage of grief is shock. The person's mind has temporarily shut down. Above all, be a good listener and just be there to minister and not to lecture or to figure things out.
That brings us to Commandment #3
3. Do not try to explain everything.(Remember, this is where Job's friends got into trouble.)
You may have some theory about what happened to your friend's loved one. There may be speculation about the circumstances or the reason they died. But when your opinion is given voice, it becomes gossip. Opinions of others only bring more pain and sorrow to the one who is already hurting.
Often, the extended family members or others, will start assigning blame in an attempt to understand the tragedy that has taken place. They are grasping at straws, seeking to blame someone for the pain that really is nobody's fault. The Blame Game helps no one and only inflicts more pain upon the injured.
Grieving people are guilt magnets. I think this is especially true for parents who have lost a child. They are already beating themselves up for what might have been. They live with a recital of "what ifs" running through their minds. Hearing the hurtful opinions of others only causes more mental anguish and a tendency toward despair.
In Proverbs 18:2 we are taught that, "A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart." And Proverbs 16:22 says, "Understanding is a wellspring of life to him who has it. But the correction of fools is folly."
Brothers and sisters, we may not know why, and we may not have all the answers, but we do know something… And that brings us to Commandment #4.
4. Share the promises of God.
Every Christian experiences spiritual warfare. But I am convinced that the bereaved person comes under especially hateful attacks from the enemy. Satan loves to kick us when we are down, and he has a prime opportunity to bring temptations and doubts into our minds when we are reeling under the blow of grief. One way Satan assaults us is through people's careless words.
Words are very powerful. The words of those around us can either lift us up and encourage us to trust God, or they can tempt us to despair and sit in the mire of self pity. A friend might shake his head and offer these condolences: "What a tragedy! This never should have happened! You poor thing, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes! How can you go on living?"
The bereaved can do without this type of pity. Those negative messages only tempt him or her to doubt God's character, His goodness, His love and His sovereignty. A truly compassionate friend will care about his grieving friend's soul. He will encourage the bereaved to trust God by reminding him of the promises in God's word.
For me, my biggest tempter was someone close to me. Almost every time I saw her after Steve's death she would ask me questions like: "How can you go on living?" "Aren't you envious of other people's children?" "Don't you wonder why they still have their child and yours is gone?" "Aren't you bitter?" "Aren't you angry?"
Each time I was confronted with those questions I would be thrown back into a spiritual battle--the battle for my faith. I'm glad that I already had a good understanding of the character of God. I already had my ammunition. I had to make sure I kept reading God's word, hearing God's word, reading good Christian books, and getting counsel from my pastor and from godly friends. My desire was to hold onto truth, the promises of God. Just like Job, I did not want to sin against God with my mouth, but I wanted to praise the God who made me.
It is knowing God and His promises that will ultimately turn mourning into dancing. Listen to the beautiful promise found in Isaiah 61. In this prophetic passage, Christ declares that God has sent Him to heal the brokenhearted,… "to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified."
Next is Commandment #5:
5. Avoid saying "I know just how you feel." Nobody will believe you and the statement accomplishes nothing.
What you do know is that the bereaved person is missing their loved one very much. Try to get them to remember happy times with their loved one. Perhaps you have some memories of their loved one you can share. When the grieving one can talk about their loved one, and even laugh about happy times they had, then you know that healing has begun.
When you mention your friend's loved one and bring up precious memories, you are assuring your friend that the one they lost is not forgotten. By doing this you assure them also that you remember their loss and you remember them. It is a special encouragement to us when family members or friends drop us a card or tell us they are praying for us on Steve's birthdate or on the anniversary of his death.
Let's talk more about how to express compassion. Commandment #6 says,
6. Words often fail, so express yourself through a loving hug, a handshake, even a simple touch. Just being there is a ministry.
While in the depths of grief, Greg and I came to appreciate the power of a touch or a hug. Charlie Walton wrote a whole chapter on hugs in his book, When There Are No Words. To explain the benefits of a hug, Walton begins by saying there is no way to quantify the pain of grief. He continues:
Pain doesn't come in pounds or ounces or gallons. You just feel like you are standing before a mountain that you are going to have to move one spoonful at a time. It is a task you can never hope to complete… a mountain that you can never hope to finish moving. But… as you stand surveying that mountain of grief… a loved one steps forward with a hug that communicates clearly. You can almost picture that person stepping up to your mountain of grief with a shovel and saying, 'I cannot move the mountain for you… but I will take this one shovel full of your grief and deal with it myself.'
It seemed to me that every hug helped to dilute the pain a little more… that every sincere hugger carried away a small quantity of the mountain [we] were facing.
Another way friends reached out to me after Steve's death was to sit by me in church. Does your family have a favorite pew or row to sit in at church week after week? We do. It just doesn't seem right to sit anywhere else. But after Steve died, that empty chair on my left became like a vast, black pit which threatened to swallow me. It was so painful to sit next to that empty chair. For a while, several of the young people came and sat next to me. Then my friend, Betty, sat there until she became too sick to attend church. She died of cancer just a few months later. The end of our row was falling into the abyss.
But God… Don't you love that pronouncement? But God… God knew I would need a friend to come alongside me, and to do something so simple as sit beside me in church. God brought this friend into my life only three weeks before Steve died. At first I didn't even know her very well. But she started sitting next to me, and she filled that empty space next to me for over three years. She did much more than that for me and we became good friends.
Do you see how such a small gesture can mean so much to a person who is in pain? Look around you. See what you can do to come alongside that one who is struggling. That is what comfort is all about. Isn't it?
Our English word "comfort" comes from two Latin words that together mean "with strength." The Holy Spirit is called the "Comforter" because He strengthens us and enables us to handle the challenges facing us. The Greek word translated "comforter" means "one called alongside to help." The word could also be translated "encourager." To encourage someone means to put courage into them, or to give them heart.
Yes, Christ does bring comfort to our hearts, but we are to be Christ to hurting people. The word "Christian" means "little Christ." We are His arms, His legs, His hands and His voice. In 2 Corinthians 7:4-6 Paul mentions how God used Titus to bring comfort to himself and those with him in Macedonia. Here is what Paul said starting in the middle of verse 4:
4b. I am filled with comfort. I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation.
5. For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears.
6. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.
As encouragers, we must meet people where they are. Commandment #7 says:
7. Do not be afraid to "weep with those who weep."
Grieving people need to feel free to grieve. Rushing a grieving person to get better is like trying to send someone home from the hospital while they are still on life support. Simplistic advice like"Just turn it over to the Lord" is not helpful. Healing takes time. And the comforter, the one coming alongside, must walk the fine line of pointing the bereaved to Christ, holding up the promises of God without being judgemental. We must be in the valley with the one who is in pain, but lovingly, patiently show the way up.
God does not hurry us along or trivialize our grief. Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us there is a time to weep and a time to mourn. Psalm 56:8 says that God puts my tears in His bottle. A time of mourning is a time to draw near and learn of Him.
Commandment #8 goes along with this idea of not rushing grief.
8. Remember that grieving is a difficult process that takes time. Be patient with those who mourn and try not to say, "Aren't you over it yet?"
A person who has experienced a traumatic loss can heal, by the grace of God. But they will not be the same person they were before. They are forever changed. In their recovery they will find a new "normal." In this sense they will never be "over it." There will always be those things which trigger the memories of their loved one. And with the memories come the emotions connected with them.
Emotions are not governed by checklists. We do not grieve for four or five months and then one day decide we are done with grief. The things our loved one left behind resurrect memories for us every day. Common everyday places are filled with emotional land mines. For instance, the grocery store is full of the foods our loved one enjoyed and some he hated. For thirteen years my buying habits were influenced by my son's desires. His favorite foods call to me from the shelves. Likewise, just walking past the boy's department in a store, seeing clothes Steve would have liked, can send my heart tumbling.
The whole Nashville area is a theater of memories for me. In the parks, the skating rink, the museums, the sites of many field trips, the pizza place,… Steve is not here, but he is everywhere.
I am an emotional being. God made me this way. Ten years from now I will still miss Steve. This is why you must not ask, "Aren't you over it yet."
Let's look at some other ways to encourage the grieving soul. Commandment #9 says:
9. Visit regularly during the weeks after the funeral.
Not only does the bereaved one need visitors who will sit with him, weep with him and encourage him, but he or she needs real help. Remember that the grieving person is in shock and has trouble concentrating. He is not only in pain, but he has trouble doing simple tasks.
The family will need meals, cleaning done, errands run, babysitting if there are young children in the home, or perhaps yard work may need to be done. Once again, I can use our own church as an example. I think they brought meals for about three weeks. Later on they helped me prepare food when we had company. And we had quite a lot of company during our first year of grief. Friends came and painted Steve's room for us so we could fix it up as a guest room. Steve had been a "messie," and his room was uninhabitable. One regret I have is that I didn't take a picture of his room before we cleaned it up and changed it.
The men of the church rallied around my husband. Often someone would take Greg out to breakfast so he could have the opportunity to share with another man. Friends also helped me with cleaning and with errands. I truly believe that without God on our side, and without the body of Christ reaching out to do all they could to help us and to bring us comfort, we would not have survived. God knew what He was doing when He moved us to a little out-of-the-way town in Tennessee and placed us in a very average-looking church among Christians with above-average faith.
Last of all is commandment #10.
10. Keep confidence. Don't turn the experience into a sermon illustration unless the family gives you permission.
The grieving person needs to trust the one he pours his heart out to. He will need to talk about his pain, his anger, his guilt, and his regrets. He needs to know that he can speak freely and that what he says won't be repeated.
In my own situation, once again God did something quite unexpected. I really didn't know D. very well. She was the mother of one of Steve's best friends. After Steve died she became a student of grief, and of my grief in particular. She wanted to know everything that was happening in my life. She became my confidant, and I knew I could trust her. Through this experience we became close friends, and I am thankful for the gift of D.
Well, here we are at the end. Are you feeling a little overwhelmed? I will say again that grief work is hard work. But I know that the body of Christ is up to the task because God is our refuge and our strength. We can bring comfort to others because we know the Comforter.
I'll end with a prayer written by Pastor John Piper in his book, Life As A Vapor.
Father in heaven, have mercy on
the misery of this world.
Forgive us for our part in
causing the pain of others.
Waken us as never before to the preciousness
of your mercy bought by the blood of Christ.
Fix our hopes so fully on the joy of heaven,
that we become the freest of all people on earth.
May our everlasting memories of your grace
make us glad of all you changed
and all you forgave.
In Jesus' name,