On this Christmas day, one thought overwhelms all others in my mind:
Knowing that God came, that He descended from His heaven to our heaviness – and below it – fills and unburdens my heart.
The truth that He descends alongside all humankind’s sorrows including my own bears up my grief…
…Shining light into its hidden corners, crowding out absence.
He came, as He promised He would.
“I will not leave you comfortless,” He promises today. “I will come to you.” (John 14:18)
So the pattern is clear: If we seek to share in His comfort, if we long to mediate God’s love for others, then we must come to them.
Today I bow low in thanks to a God Who came…
And to all those who, as mediators of His holy and healing presence, have come to us.
From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward
The original meaning of succor is to run or dash to someone’s aid. How soon we go, how easily we drop everything to help, says something about our esteem for the person in need. Zeal sends one message; hesitation another. The best time and most eloquent way to succor is to do so when need arises. After all, service is seldom convenient.
—Wayne Brickey, Making Sense of Suffering, 104
A physician who lost one of his own children says that before his loss, when he would hear of a child’s death, he would send a card; now he sends himself.
—Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 233
To show compassion means to share in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 67
One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
—Sophocles, quoted in To My Soul Mate, ed. Gary Morris, 59
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear—
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?
And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow,” The Poetical Works of William Blake, 75–76
I am not thinking clearly. But I am thinking. I am trying to think.
Our friends arrive shortly after 2 a.m., in one car. Susan and Ron, Jeanne and Dan and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lily whom Ray and I have known since her birth. When they step inside, and embrace me—it’s as if I have stepped into a violent surf.
Though our friends remain with me until 4 a.m. most of what we said to one another has vanished from my memory. Our friends will tell me that I behaved calmly and yet it was clear that I was in a state of shock. I can remember Jeanne on the phone, in the kitchen, making calls to funeral homes. I can remember my astonishment that a funeral home might be open at such an hour of the night. I can remember explaining to my friends how Ray died––why Ray died-––the secondary infection, the fact that his blood pressure plummeted, his heartbeat accelerated––these gruesome words which I have memorized and which, even now, at any hour of the they day, along with my final vision of Ray in the hospital bed, run through my mind like flashes of heat lightning.
My friends are extraordinary, I think. To come to me so quickly in the middle of the night as they’ve done.
For the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling. The widow inhabits a nightmare-tale and yet it is likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help. We loved Ray, and we love you.
Let us help you. Ray would want this.
–Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story, 80, 81
So many other relatives . . . and even close friends—stepped forward and were there for us when we needed them so desperately. . . . These are the people who went with us to the morgue; they brought back personal belongings from the accident scene; they selected caskets; they phoned people, made food, drove us where we had to go. . . . We will never forget all they did for us.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 57
One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it need only a second to be born.
–Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 72
No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
—John Donne, “Meditation XVII”
It is natural, in sorrow, to be consoled if a friend shares our grief. . . .
First, sorrow weighs one down; it is a load which, of course, one tries to lighten. When therefore a person sees others joining him in sorrow, it feels as if they are helping him carry the load, trying to lessen its weight on him; so the burden weighs on him less heavily, just as in the case of carrying physical weights.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Eileen Geller, “The St. Thomas Guide to Surviving Grief,” Consoling Grace
What is the difference between grieving and mourning? Mourning has company.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning, 39
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, 331
The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”). After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.
—Jennie Hildegard Westenhaver, “Pictures of the Dead,” Beehive and Birdnest (blog)
Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”
Do not assume that she who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. Her life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, she would never have been able to find these words.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Say Hello, 4
A simplistic sounding answer to the question of how to help families face tragedy is that, paradoxically, there are no “right things to say,” nor is there even a need to say anything that speaks of the intellect at a time like this. The need is for sincere human love, reaching in its own unique, spontaneous, fumbling way with a “built-in” message: “Though I don’t fully understand how you feel, I care enough to come to you and to try to share your hurt with you as much as I can, and as much as you will allow me to at this time. I’ll leave you alone if I get any vibrations from you that you prefer to be alone, yet I’ll leave with a readiness to come back when you give the signal you want me to come back.”
—Vern Albrecht, quoted in DeAnna Edwards, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise, 130
The reality of grief is the absence of God—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away” [Lord Byron]. . . .
That’s why immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.
And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.
—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58;
Sloane, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.
The test, then, of our soul’s greatness is rather to be sought in our ability to comfort and console, our ability to help others, rather than in our ability to help ourselves and crowd others down in the struggles of life.
—John A. Widstoe and Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 265
She used to rock me in her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that if I had not been able to bear the society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me into forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
“Tell me about Deidre and Patrick,” and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, “Cease to grieve,” but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
—Isadora Duncan, quoted in McCracken and Semel, A Broken Heart Still Beats, 218;
Duncan’s two young children, Deidre and Patrick, drowned in the Seine.
We need people who most sensitively mediate God’s love for us.
—Wayne Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 12
When our pain is so deep and real that we can’t see or feel anything else, we need the witness of the saints about us; saints who, on the basis of their own experience of life’s pain, can assure us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth. In all our pain, and beyond all our pain, always is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies, and which will never allow us to die.
—Jeffery J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 130
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
—Sonnet 30, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1754–55