How do you know what to say to people going through terrible things?
One of the worst lessons of life is that things can get so much worse than you ever thought was possible.
Whatever your limit is, life will push you past it.
You wake up and you can’t fucking believe it. Everything is different.
When someone is at that moment, what do you say to them?
Life can get so much worse than you are ready for.
But actually you can handle it.
You get by.
Eventually things level out.
But at that first surprising terrible moment, how can you convince someone of that?
My second year of seminary I had a class with the president of the seminary, who had worked as a pastor for many years before accepting the position. (Those were always my favorite professors, by the way.)
It was a 15-week class on three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapters 9, 10, and 11) and was one of the most interesting of my seminary career.
(Aside: Remind me to tell you the story of when I sort of yelled at him one day in class.)
The class itself was fascinating because those 3 chapters have an awful lot in them, but my favorite parts of the class were always when he would step aside from his professor roll and talk about his experience as a pastor.
One of those conversations was about what to say when we are called in the middle of the night to be with a family who has gone through something terrible. Someone asked “What are we supposed to say?”
"Nothing," he replied. "You aren’t supposed to say anything. You’re supposed to go and put your arms around them and just shut up. Let them cry or talk or whatever they need to do. Let them do it. They won’t remember anything you say anyway. They’ll remember that you were there much more than they’ll remember anything that you say.”
Another student complained about this advice, “But aren’t we supposed to be the ones who do have something to say? Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who can offer encouragement?”
"Yes," the president replied, "that is who we are, but that’s not the time for it. Look, if you get called out at 2 o’clock in the morning because someone has been in a fatal car accident, your only job is to show up and to cry with them and say that you’re sorry. Trying to give some sort of explanation for it isn’t going to help them in that moment.
"The funeral is the time when you offer your thoughts and reflections. That night your only job is to offer your presence. And don’t forget that you will be there after the funeral too. Most of the time people who lose someone close to them find themselves fairly numb for awhile anyway. They’re surrounded by people and decisions that they have to make.
"It’s often harder on people after the funeral when everyone leaves and goes back to business as usual. That’s when you also need to be there, when they still have questions and when they do want to talk and when they do need you to remind them of all the things that they believe, even when they aren’t sure they have to strength to believe them. Too often everyone else will move on after the first few days, or after the funeral, but you’re still there. And they’re much more likely to be ready to listen after they realize that you’re still there and have been all along.”
That may have been the most important thing I learned in seminary, but I think most of it applies to everyone. In “that first surprising terrible moment” no one expects you to have anything to say.
They’re just glad that they aren’t alone.
The “stages of grief” (which are probably better described as “cycles of grief” because it’s not a linear progression where you check one off and then are done with it) take time, and trying to get someone to “acceptance” before they’ve had a chance to go through the other stages/cycles may have more to do with our own anxiety and discomfort at being around someone we love/care for who is suffering.
We want them to feel better, but it takes time. I think the best we can do as their friends is to show them and assure them that they won’t have to go through it alone.