Vale of Tears

Sharing Condolence



Sharing Condolence

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness – that is a friend who cares.
Henri Nouwen

Condolence, as Monica Lehner-Kahn aptly reminds us, is the art of giving courage. Deep down, the bereaved are acutely aware that they no longer fit in. Suddenly there is no one around with whom to share precious memories, and no one with whom to enjoy the dearly familiar rounds of life. The household’s silence palls. With their past exposed and their future uncertain, fears of being excluded hook into other long-buried memories of being overlooked and passed over.

The more willing we are to enter their isolation, the more bearable we make life for them. Contrary to what we might suppose, most people do not expect us to come up with all the answers for their dilemmas: it is our presence that is most appreciated.

One of the many challenges about spending time with someone in grief is knowing when to sit back and let them “vent,” and when to try to steer them beyond it. Our starting point is to remember that we are there to serve them, rather than to correct every distorted perspective. More often than not, it is best neither to collude with such perspectives, nor to rebuke them.

If the person becomes agitated and directs cutting remarks your way such as, “I feel dreadful – and you’re not helping much!” count to ten and make allowances. It is likely to be a reflection of the enormous strain they are going through than anything personal. They may be feeling at odds with the doctor who diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) them, or with someone else entirely. Resist the temptation to snap back that they are not the easiest person in the world to help, and try saying something like, “What are you finding hardest to cope with?”

Bearing in mind that we are there primarily to serve and strengthen them, it can help to choose a seat at a lower level, so that the person is looking down at us, rather than up. Holding hands, an arm around the shoulder, a tender look – all such non verbal gestures can mean so much.

We may find going over and over the same ground tiring, but this is precisely what hurting people need to do. Telling and retelling the story of what happened is an important part in managing and reducing their trauma.

To be sure, there are those who consider grief a dangerous emotion – a luxury that deprives one not only of courage, but even of the will to recover. Others, like John Adams in a moving letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, recognise the beneficial effects that grief has had in terms of shaping and fashioning their soul.

 Grief drives men into the habit of serious reflection, sharpens the understanding and softens the heart.

As we shall be seeing in Part Nine, the griefs we experience often “qualify” us to share the Lord’s own heart. To enable someone to express their sadness may therefore be the kindest thing we can do for them. They are embarking on a new quest to redefine themselves – a process that will involve many difficult decisions and, quite possibly, more than one false start.

Reflect and Pray

Think rather – call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.
A.E. Houseman