Being There During Bad Times

Catherine Woodiwiss offers guidance for those who want to help a friend or loved one going through trauma or suffering. Among her suggestions? “Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not”:

“I’m so sorry you lost your son, we lost our dog last year … ” “At least it’s not as bad as … ” “You’ll be stronger when this is over.” “God works in all things for good!”

When a loved one is suffering, we want to comfort them. We offer assurances like the ones above when we don’t know what else to say. But from the inside, these often sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false. Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while.

David Brooks distills (NYT) her advice to one phrase – “the art of presence” – and puts it in context:

We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.

Todd Brewer appreciates the advice:

Woodiwess speaks repeatedly of the “presence” of those around her – how much it helped that people were simply there. But what Brooks aptly notes is that this presence is rarely, if ever, one that is aided by the speech of the console-er. When the world goes to hell, the last thing one needs is “a word” from the pastor. A cup of soup? Absolutely! A book on “why bad things happen…’? Not so much.

For many people – especially for pastors highly trained in preaching and teaching – this is incredibly disarming. It feels like resignation or irresponsibility not to say anything to the person in the midst of trauma. At best, we want to help. But so often “help” is just another word for “control” and a defense mechanism for feeling uncomfortable with another’s grief. Perhaps some might even think that a failure to talk about Jesus is un-Christian. And so we assault the grieving with misguided theological platitudes, congratulating ourselves that we’ve done our job.