How to Help a Grieving Friend
Over the next four months I will be writing an awful lot about grief for my thesis. I imagine much of what I write and think will end up on this blog. Grief is difficult to write about because it is incredibly subjective. We can talk about our experience of grieving, but to objectively state this is how one should grieve — that is plain preposterous. It has been 8 years since the death of my wife, and during this time I have often been asked what is the best way to comfort someone who is suffering, or someone who has experienced loss, or someone who is grieving. We want to reach out and help that person and we want some simple solution to make everything better. This is understandable, but is completely the opposite of what one should do.
There are three basic views I could hold on my experience of loss. The first is: God smote Rachael down in wrath and we who are left to pick up the pieces grieve her loss in the face of a vengeful God. A second option would be: God had no hand in the death of Rachael. It was the occurrence of random calamitous events, entropy is the great leveler. The third option is: Rachael’s death was the consequence of and in direct correlation to God’s love. I will begin to write about this now and continue in a later post.
The first view holds a certain view of the justice of God that does not hold up under a blunt analysis of the world. Why must we suffer? Is it a result of our sin? Those in Jesus’ time certainly thought so (John 9:2). There are countless examples of those in our time that agree. Suffering is a result of sin, but do we suffer as a direct result of our sin? To put it bluntly: did my wife die as a punishment of the sin inherent in any relationship? Are we, the survivors, suffering the consequences of our choices? Was our individual and cumulative sin greater than our neighbors? If so what was the sin that tipped the scale? If we had repented of this sin would God have stayed his wrath? This view fails under the weight of its apathy for grace. It does not allow room for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Instead it voids the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and makes us the bearers of the wrath of God.
The second option also does not allow for God’s mercy to fully interact with the world. For, if God is helplessly wringing his hands in heaven watching as events take place, then God is either nothing but a perverse voyeur impotent in his desire to act, or God does not see or interact at all in this world—essentially, for all intrinsic reasons, God does not exist. We are told this God loves us, but what kind of love would this be? How does this love actually work itself out in relationship? To worship this type of God is really a glorification of the self. This is the easiest God to believe in, because this type of faith requires nothing of us.
The third view in light of John 11, as well as John 3:3, seems to be the best option. It is also the hardest option to accept. We, in the midst of our sufferings, do not see the ramifications of God’s glory in our sufferings. We only feel the inability of God to act, and Christ’s tears fall as an empty metaphor in the disillusion of our faith. Our hope is scraped bare. We stand scarred by the holiness of God and say with Mary and Martha, “If only you were here…” (John 11:21, 32).
What then can we do? Despair is contingent upon our inability to understand the work of God in the world and our lack of hope in the moment of crisis. This lack of faith is beautifully contrasted in the responses of Mary and Martha to the death of Lazarus. Martha, when she sees Jesus coming, approaches Christ on the road and confronts him: “Lord if you had been here…” Her words initially are the same as Mary’s as we will see later. But Martha, who earlier in Luke ten had served Christ instead of listening to his teachings, changes her tone. The “But even now…” is the moment when Martha steps from despair into the realm of hope (John 11:22). Martha does not yet understand all Christ will do, but she believes. Jesus, recognizing her belief, speaks into her grief and offers her the words of life.
Contrastingly Mary, hearing that Christ had come, rushes out to see him. She too confronts Christ falling at his feet with the words “Lord if you had been here…” yet stops short of hope and is overcome by grief. Christ, recognizing her grief, does not reprimand her for her lack of faith. Instead he mourns with her. He recognizes her need for tears in place of words. He offers her not the Words of life but the face of God broken by sorrow.
In these two actions Jesus reveals to us two of the ways God interacts with us in our grief, and shows us how comfortable Jesus was with subjectivity. To Martha, God appeared as the Word of life. To Mary, broken by her despair and grief, God appeared as a fellow mourner stricken by the weight of sin in the world. Thus, God comes as He is needed. In these revelations of God the “behold” of the angels resonates in our ears and we are stricken by the news that God is with us (Luke 2:10), that God dwells above the water bathing us in the illumination of the eternal-now.
How then do you help a friend who is grieving? There is no easy answer. There is no quick fix. Instead we need to follow the example of Christ and be present. There are times when the words of consolation are beneficial; there are times when a face of desolation is healing. This practice of being-in-grief with the other is difficult because it removes us from the solution—it takes the power out of our hands. Yet, to mourn with the other is a gift, for it allows us time to not have an answer, to be humble, and to intimately enter into someone’s life as the face of Christ broken with sorrow speaking the words of eternal life. This gift and how we use it says more about us than it does about the person grieving. Grief is the great revealer, it shows us how we view the body in relationship with the other. I will write about this more in my next post.
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