by Joanie Butman
I have no depth perception at night, which makes it difficult to drive after dark. My friend graciously chauffeurs me when we go out for the evening. When she drives me home, she doesn’t just drop me off and leave. Regardless of the time, she waits patiently as I enter, turn on the lights and give her a signal that all is well. Once when my family was away, we arrived late and found the door ajar. We crept into the house while I boldly announced, “If anyone is in here, my friend from Texas is with me. She has a gun and is not afraid to use it!” Our giggling supplanted our fear. As she would say, “Bless her heart.” She didn’t leave until we made sure nothing was amiss, and I assured her I was comfortable staying alone.
The reason I share this story is because I’ve received a number of prayer requests recently from people ushering loved ones from this life into the next – or so I choose to believe. Not to diminish how painful that final journey can be for everyone involved, but I believe they are doing the same as my friend, walking their loved ones home, allaying their fears and making sure they are comfortable in many respects.
Suffering is a fact of life. No one is immune. The world is full of silent suffering. I’m not sure who hurts more, the person suffering or the loved ones watching. You feel so helpless and guilty too for wanting to see them released from their suffering. Sometimes there are needs to be met, but more often it is just a quiet presence, a listening ear or a warm hand that is most needed. In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen advises that “a loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
I’ve often wished there was a book of comforting phrases to use when you’re coming up empty. Shame on me, that’s why the Bible is the best-selling book in history. DUH! It took me a long time to realize that if you’re having trouble coming up with the words, maybe you aren’t meant to be using any. Perhaps, the better choice is to be still and listen – allowing the appropriate words to flow through you not from you. When we stop trying so hard to grasp for words that aren’t there, it leaves room for the only One who always has the ability to offer comfort and peace in any situation.
On the other hand, I’ve plenty of material for a book on what not to say to someone who is suffering. It will be called Zip It! I’ve swapped stories with friends who have shared their own accounts of truly thoughtless things people have said to them during their own dark moments – some quoted right from the Bible! Just because it’s in there doesn’t mean it is appropriate for every circumstance. Quoting out of context can be dangerous and hurtful.
The friend I mentioned last week with the eye problems described how an elderly woman approached her and asked, “What did you do that God would take away your eyesight?” I can’t remember her response, but it was certainly more polite than the one I suggested. “You should have told her you hit an old lady for asking stupid questions!”
My personal favorite is a doozy, and my friend won’t mind me sharing the story as we still laugh about it. The day before I was diagnosed with a 10” tumor in my gut, I was kvetching that I felt like I was nine months pregnant. She responded, “You just have to let loose a giant fart!” Oh, if it had been that easy. When I called her the next day to let her know that her home remedy was not going to take care of this particular malady, she felt awful. I always tell her if I ever get around to writing a handbook of things not to say, she’ll get top billing.
In the light of another’s suffering, we all search for the right words to offer comfort. These are the moments when we discover language is woefully inadequate to express what’s in our hearts. When I find myself at a loss for words, I’ve realized it’s best to retreat into a holy silence. That silence becomes a depository for whatever the person suffering wishes to share. It might simply be a moment of silence where their guard dissipates to reveal the open wound that is their heart. Sometimes your presence is the only solace you can offer and the only one they need. Keep in mind, your presence doesn't necessarily need to be a physical one. I've walked that road with people I never even met in person. Holding vigil with someone in pain is a privilege and a blessing. The comfort lies not in any words you might say, but in your willingness to walk beside them and help them carry their burdens. Your light offers them hope as their own diminishes.
I mentioned earlier my belief that the end of this life is just the beginning of the next – one without suffering I might add. I realize not everyone chooses to believe in eternal life, but even the most devout atheist has to wonder as they approach death whether or not they’ve made a wise choice. After all, if I’m wrong, I lose nothing. If they’re wrong, they lose everything. Just something you might want to choose to consider before you are face to face with your own mortality.
Even Steve Jobs hedged his bets. In Walter Isaacson’s biography, the author shares one of his interviews with Jobs regarding God, “Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50-50 maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more. And I find myself believing a bit more. I kind of – maybe it’s ’cause I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear.” Steve Jobs was a visionary and a seeker. I could be wrong, but I choose to believe the last vision Jobs had was his best ever or else he wouldn’t have left this world with these words still lingering on his lips, “Oh Wow, Oh Wow, Oh Wow!” I think in death he finally solved the mystery that had eluded him in life – as we all will.