Recently I spent time with two old friends. Both are grieving.
One just lost his mother to cancer. The other lost his wife – also to cancer – three years ago. His best friend died of a massive heart attack a few weeks ago.
I knew that mother, that wife and that best friend. So I grieve their passing as well.
How do I comfort my friends? By keeping my mouth shut. When Jesus, for example, learned of the death of his friend Lazarus and heard the wails of Lazarus’ sisters, He didn’t say much. He wept.
Words can wait. Tears come first. Then silence. Then listening – if the grieving one wants to talk. If they want to hear what words of comfort you have to offer, they’ll ask.
That’s hard to do – staying silent. You want to say something, especially if you have experienced your own loss. You want to salve the wound with words. Don’t. Follow Jesus’ lead. He knew when to cry, when to speak and when to be quiet. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Experiencing grief can prepare you to bear the griefs of others, but only if you allow it to do its good work in you first.
Grief is the price you pay for love, the saying goes, but it can become too high a price. Some people let grief overwhelm them and never start on the road to recovery. Some spend the rest of their lives in despair, anger or bitterness.
“Sorrow removes a great deal of a person’s shallowness, but it does not always make that person better,” Oswald Chambers wrote in My Utmost for His Highest.
“Suffering either gives me to myself or it destroys me,” Oswald noted. “You cannot find or receive yourself through success, because you lose your head over pride. And you cannot receive yourself through the monotony of your daily life, because you give in to complaining. The only way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be this way is immaterial. The fact is that it is true in the scriptures and in human experience.”
I have lost loved ones through the years, but I didn’t know grief – really know it – until my wife died in 2017. I soon discovered how shallow I was. My heart had to expand to contain the tears or drown. It’s an ongoing excavation project.
That doesn’t qualify me to comfort someone else, however. Everyone mourns differently. To enter into someone else’s grief, you don’t necessarily need to understand it, but you need an invitation. When the invitation comes, be ready. Be available. Be generous.
“You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you,” Chambers promised. “If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people.”
Blessed are those who mourn, Christ says, for they shall be comforted. He might even use you to do the comforting.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is a writer based in Richmond, Va., with 30-plus years in Baptist journalism.)