THEY ARE READY TO LISTEN!
YOU WANT TO HELP.
It is time.
It had been some months since Frieda's daughter had had her fatal accident. I had only been on the “church field” for several weeks, but had already spent quite a bit of time in visiting and getting to know Frieda, and letting her get to know me. I was was following a teaching of one of my seminary professors who had said, “You have to earn the right to minister to others.”
Not knowing me at all, the Morris family had been more than friendly, yet they spoke only in general terms about the loss of their child. I truly did not expect them to share anything of consequence with me, because they just did not know me very well. They didn't know whether or not my concern for them was genuine. And perhaps because of this, their agendas continued to reflect the need for light conversations, sharing our own backgrounds, and the like.
During those visits, I had grown to enjoy their company and to care for them as individuals and as a family. Because of that, I had to fight against making the assumption that they needed anything more than what their agendas were showing me. I wanted to comfort them in the worst way, but knew that the best means of accomplishing that was to be there for them if, and when, they ever wanted to seek my help.
It was a Saturday morning when Frieda called me, asking if I could stop by. I remember the day of the week, because I was in my old jeans and sweatshirt; I had been out burning leaves. I told her that I could come on over if she didn't mind the smell of smoke and the old work clothes. She said she had a fresh pot of coffee on, and I went on over.
I had barely parked myself in the chair adjacent to hers at the breakfast room table when her eyes filled with tears. She struggled not to shed them and the look on her face told me that those tears were not tears of sorrow. Her words were hard, almost bitter, as she said, “I want to know why God allowed that to happen to Sherrie. What was God thinking?! Sherrie (her deceased daughter) was the good one of our family! She was the one who kept prodding us to go to church. She was on the cheer leading squad, she had made the “A” honor roll, was a member of the Students for Christ Fellowship...”
Frieda continued at length telling me what I'd already learned from others about the gentle teenager who had been an unfortunate victim of a drunk driver.
“Where is the justice in all of this?” she continued. “If anyone should have gotten killed, it should have been me. I'm the one who hasn't been a good Christian. I had to lean on her for that sense of right and wrong. Why didn't God take me instead?”
The tears choked her at this point. Then, with vehemence she added: “Or what?!! Was He trying to punish me by taking her life? Was he so mad at what I've done, that he was trying to teach me a lesson by hurting the most important person in the world to me?”
Neither of us touched our coffees.
What do you say to Frieda?
At another time and place, with a different family:
You have waited in the receiving line at the funeral home for over an hour now, and you are the next person in line to offer your condolences to the bereaved family. After so many others have gone before you, what can you say that will help these family members who are experiencing the deep pain of tragic loss?
Your husband has had surgery and has to wear a prosthesis. After recovering at home for a time, he now has to venture out. Hesitating at the door, he states, “I’d rather be dead than go through this.” The silence that follows lets you know that he is waiting for some kind of word of wisdom and encouragement from you, something that will make his situation bearable.
What do we say? When the opportunity presents itself to actually do some good, we want to be prepared. We don’t want to lose the moment, and we certainly don’t want to do more harm than good. Yet that’s exactly what will happen if we are not careful to think through the consequences of what we’re going to say
Unfortunately, there is no set of black and white answers that apply to every situation. (You kind of knew that was coming, didn’t you? That would be too easy.) Neither is there always the time to think things over ahead of time. There are, however, a few simple, direct guidelines that will help us reach the deepest point of need within our wounded friend(s):
The first thing to remember is critical. Above everything else, we want to BE HONEST with our wounded friends. The kind of honesty I’m talking about is the deep down, gut-level honesty that cuts through all of the trivial layers of our own experiences and knowledge. This kind of careful honesty plucks out of our own hearts the truth of the matter as it relates to us – not necessarily as we think it relates to them.
More simply put, we need to stay away from the pronoun “you”. We want to stay away from statements that begin with phrases like, “You ought to…” or “If I were you…” or “God wants you to…”. We cannot, and we should not, presume to know all (or even most) of the intimacies of the situation that have impacted our wounded friend. And because of that, neither can we presume that our answers will be the correct, relevant resolution of their problems.
What we can assume though, once having been asked to render assistance, is that our needful friend wants us to be honest about how their crisis impacts our own minds and our own hearts and our own experience. In other words, we try to stay away from giving advice (using the pronoun “you”). Instead, we want to look inward and examine how we actually do feel about their dilemma. In doing this, we can truly be honest.
For instance, when I approach the surviving family members at a funeral home and am faced with the very real opportunity to try to provide some kind of comfort to the bereaved person, I might begin with the obvious truth: “I don’t know what to say, my friend...”
I can’t get more honest than that! And he/she knows that I’m being honest when I continue by saying:
... “but I have a deep desire to say something or to do something that will give you some comfort during this really stressful time in your life. And I tell you this because I really care about you. I hurt for you, and I wish I could do something to help.”
Now that is the honest truth as simply and effectively as I know how to put it. And it is a truth that is heard by the suffering family members because I’m not even attempting to relate to how they feel (how could I possibly know?). I am merely saying that I care enough about them to hurt for them, and to take the time to come out and tell them so.
With another family member at another funeral home, the truth will be different. So I’ll voice that truth instead: “Bob, you and I have never been very close friends. In fact, we’ve had occasions to be at odds with one another. But I do want you to know that I am sorry that you are having to struggle with this kind of loss in your life. I’m sorry you’re hurting. If it’s alright with you, I’ll call you sometime in the near future to see if you’d like to get together and chew the fat for awhile.”
By stating the truth up front (that Bob and I are not the best of friends), makes the rest of what I say credible and potentially helpful. But if I approach him as if I’m a long-standing friend who has always been supportive, will he then hear the truth behind my offer to talk later on? I am certain that he would not.
Admitting the most evident truth first, puts Bob at ease enough to understand that he can certainly refuse my offer of future conversation if he wishes. He’ll more easily recognize that I am sincere in my desire to help by the fact that I’ve not attempted to make our relationship anything more than it is. Further, he will probably realize that if a sometimes-adversary can care enough to want to help, how much more so will his long-standing friends?!