In the second chapter of Job, after his children, many of his servants, and a number of his animals have died, Job develops a case of sores from head to foot. His three closest friends come to comfort him. “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they say that his suffering was very great.” Later in the story, those friends will pontificate and offer useless advice but right here they do nothing other than sit with their friend and allow him to feel his pain while they quietly support him. That is called Sitting Shiva in scripture and we see it from time to time. When someone is grieving a loss, close friends will come and sit with them just for support. Integral to Sitting Shiva is to refrain from clichéd speech.
A friend recently was reflecting on the death of her sister. “You just don’t know how that feels until it happens. It’s like losing a limb. People try to understand but they really can’t.”
How do we help those we love and care about as they grieve their losses? Most times we are so uncomfortable with their pain, and we want to help them so badly, that we say things that are pretty offensive, things like, “It was God’s will”, or “God needed her in heaven”. Often, in an attempt to assure them that we understand, we start talking about what we did to handle our own grief in our times of loss. Or we might start making suggestions about what they might do to make their feelings go away. We may tell them to see their doctor or go to a support group. We may say to them that we understand what they are going through and we want to help. I think anyone who is grieving a loss would say that all those things are not very helpful. “If I hear one more person try to explain why this happened or what I need to do, I think I’ll explode”, one person told me years ago when he was grieving.
I visited a grieving man in while I was in seminary. It was one of the first times I had done that and I felt so helpless. I was so scared and felt unprepared so I just sat in a chair and said virtually nothing for about 20 minutes. All the while I was trying to think of something helpful to say. Later, I was surprised to hear the man tell me that my visit with him had been helpful. I confessed to him that I felt inadequate as no words of wisdom came to mind. He told me something I still remember: “Maybe not knowing what to say is God’s way of telling us to keep our mouths shut.”
We want to help our grieving friends so badly that we allow inappropriate words to spill out of our mouths. Sometimes their pain is so unbearable for us that we just want to make it go away and we try to offer some explanation for why the loss has occurred. People who suffer loss often have to work very hard to forgive others for the stupid things they have said to them which complicates their grieving process.
Sitting Shiva is a valuable and helpful way of accompanying loved ones through hard times. Just sitting quietly with them and saying nothing at all, just being present and available, is probably the very best thing we could offer them. They will talk when they need to talk. They will cry when they need to cry. They will rant when they need to rant. And our quiet presence, allowing them to be wherever they are in that moment, sends the message that where they are is where God will meet them. Why do we feel such a need to make our friends feel differently than they do? Because we love them. And because we don’t like uncomfortable feelings ourselves. But feelings will pass on through us and will be used to heal us, if we allow them to be felt.
The next time someone close to you suffers, say less, listen more, sit still with them, and allow them to be wherever they are. If you feel the need to explain or make them happier or tell them how you think things should be handled, stifle yourself and just be with them. Grief is a holy, if hard, work. It deserves to be honored rather than steered. Our job is to sit with those we love while they suffer. God’s job, and God’s promise, is to heal. Their suffering is a sign, not that God is absent but that God is doing his healing work,
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.