“It was suicide,” she said. Her eyes swam with tears that leaked down her cheeks while she explained what had happened earlier this year.
I whispered, “I’m so, so sorry,” and wrung my hands uselessly the way you do when there is nothing that will make a situation any better and you know it. The word, suicide, still hung thickly in the air between us. I wanted to swipe it away. She smiled tremulously, though, and said, “But I have a strong faith. And I know the Lord is with me.” I asked her name and told her I would pray for her. Even as she walked away, I prayed the God of all comfort would keep her heart soft while she grieves. I prayed that that strong faith of hers would remain tenacious, tough, determined.
Half a minute later, I found myself in another conversation with another suffering woman. Her unidentified physical pain sounded a lot like the pain I had described an hour earlier from the piano bench where I played the songs God had given me when my faith was as weak as my broken-down body. Again, tears that come from silent suffering threatened to spill over when the woman in front of me found a thread of hope in my story. There was relief on her face, too, in finding that she wasn’t the only one.
I love what I do. To sit at a piano and tell the story of God’s faithfulness to me in suffering as I weave together Scripture and stories with songs–it’s like rereading a book someone wrote about your life and recognizing the generous, faithful Benefactor for the first time every time. It’s thrilling to get to the denouement, the climax when the Hero rescues by simply being there. It’s falling in love with Him every time you tell the story.
I could not ask for a more fulfilling job or ministry.
But to be honest, even as one who has suffered a fair amount of physical and emotional pain, I never know quite what to say after the show. When the concert is over and I’m face to face with someone who found their story in mine, I stutter a bit and fight down the insecurity of answering the stark question of grief in front of me. My pain seems small and inconsequential in comparison to the one who has suffered more, or more recently.
I remind myself in those grief-soaked moments, though, that pain is pain and if it weren’t for the sleepless nights and anxiety-laced prayers for relief, I wouldn’t have anything to say to the woman in front of me. She just wants to be heard. To be seen. She knows I can’t alleviate her suffering. She knows I can’t promise it will go away. That’s not why she’s standing here with copies of my album clutched to her chest and tears standing in her eyes.
Clearly, she heard me when I hit that F#minor chord and confessed that I need to know that God was holding on to me in the midst of my pain. She heard the transition to D Major when I said that Jesus’ strength overrode my doubt. The weight of God’s presence in my pain resonated with her more than any chord progression ever could. The Lord was with my in my suffering. She needed to know it was true for her, too.
What do you say to the suffering?
I’m no expert, but here’s what I’ve learned over the past decade as one who has suffered a little and who seeks to minister from pain.
Here’s what’s not helpful:
Don’t promise that suffering will go away, that everything will be okay. Don’t coat grief in spiritual platitudes about the future. Don’t make promises or guarantees you have no business making, no matter how emotionally loaded the moment might be. When the silence between you is thick with awkwardly expressed grief, don’t rush to smother it with bright words. While the absence of suffering in heaven can be a comfort, it isn’t always so comforting a thought at first. Heaven can feel a long way away in the grip of pain and loss.
Here’s what is helpful:
Speak from your pain to her pain. Comfort with the comfort that’s comforted you. Remember that God is the God of all comfort who “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Simply say, “I’m sorry you’re having to go through this.” And if she needs to be reminded, put a hand on her shoulder and speak the comfort of what was won at the cross: “You’re not alone in this. The Lord never leaves your side.”
Don’t hold back your own tears. Never hold back your own tears for another’s grief. Strive to be Job’s friends on their first (and best) week. Sit with her in tears and ashes. Later you’ll get to speak truth your friend, family member, co-worker who’s struggling to hold on to faith in the midst of pain or tragedy. But first, grieve quietly with them. Lift up a corner of their pain and wear it on your own shoulders. Walk around in it and see how heavy it is. Let him grieve as often as he needs to, let her recount the same story as many times as it takes for her to process it.
When my infant son was nearly lost to me, I sat on a couch across from a kind friend who stopped by to see how I was really doing. I needed to be gut-level honest with someone that day: “I know God is good; I know He will still be good on the other side of this. I know I will still believe in His goodness. What I’m afraid of is the process of loss. I don’t know how to come through this and still be me. I’m afraid of who I will be when this is over.”
My friend–she just listened. Nodded. Looked me in the eye through her own tears, and nodded. She knew that I knew what was true. She also knew I needed to be heard and seen that day, that I needed someone else to hear the words that scratched their way out of my broken heart. So she sat still and heard me. Saw me. Reminded me with her presence that the Lord also heard and saw me, that He was with me. A person who simply grips my hands with tears in her eyes says a whole lot more to me about God’s faithfulness than a quippy reminder that “God’s got this!” Mostly, we already know God’s got this. We just need to unload a bit of the burden we’re carrying.
Empathy is everything here. Feel the grief of the person standing in front of you in the church lobby. Own the pain of the person standing next to you in the pew. Be silent but present next to the hospital bed. Weep with the one who is weeping. Hold them up as they falter in their faith. Many times I have prayed over a suffering friend the beautiful words of Psalm 90:15 because I know one day when we see Jesus face to face, it will be true a million times over: “Make us rejoice for as many days as You have humbled us, for as many years as we have seen adversity.”
In pain, sadness, loss, and grief, I want to suffer well. I want the watching world to be confounded by the fierce grip of Christ on my tattered faith. But that doesn’t mean that the act of suffering is easy or enjoyable. It’s so hard. And that’s what I said to the woman who was still reeling from her brother’s suicide. It’s so hard. Simple words, but necessary acknowledgment.
Maybe it’s the most obvious statement in the world that suffering is painful, but we must have patience for those in pain. And we must make suffering a community project.
Whatever you say to the suffering person in your life, make it your priority to communicate that they never suffer alone. Jesus’ solitary suffering at the cross means that God will never abandon us in our sorrow and pain. Never.
Remind your friend of that with your presence, your grief-sharing, your love, your hope.
Sometimes it isn’t so much what you say to the suffering that communicates God’s faithfulness. It’s your proximity.Sometimes it isn't what you say that communicates God's faithfulness. It's your proximity. Click To Tweet