Offering a Christlike Presence to the Grieving

By A Conversation with Jonathan Olford   •   May 8, 2007

As believers in Christ, what do we say and how do we engage with those who are in the midst of suffering?

Though God’s redemptive plan has always included suffering, it’s not something most of us choose to think about. After tragedies like the recent tornadoes and earthquakes, we may feel like the world is spinning out of control, but we know Who is always in control. Jesus didn’t come to end suffering; He came to reveal Himself in the midst of it, to reveal the presence of God in the midst of chaos.

As we minister to hurting people, their perspective can be reestablished as we walk alongside them in their anger, regret, guilt, resentment, bitterness, resignation and hopelessness. Through our manner, words and attitude, we can offer a Christlike presence to those experiencing deep suffering.

I recall a conversation with a woman who shared with me what someone in ministry had told her after a trauma that resulted in the death of her husband:

“‘You should be grateful that you still have kids to look after you and that you are not alone,’ he told me. He suggested that God is good and, after all, isn’t my husband in a better place? But he doesn’t get it! If God is so good, why does He allow these awful things to happen? I know life isn’t fair! I’m not stupid! But if there is a God and He does things like this … I don’t even want to know Him.”

We must recognize the fragility of the traumatized and be sensitive in our caring—not to answer for God, to over-spiritualize or to be empathically careless or dismissive.

How would you respond to this woman who lost her spouse—to her not wanting to even know God?

I wouldn’t even go there. I would start by saying, “Tell me about your husband.” I would try to focus on what she enjoyed about him and their life together, and say, “It must be so painful to lose someone so special.” With these types of comments, a heart will begin to soften. And as healing starts, we come into a position where we can say, “Wow, you really experienced God’s blessing throughout your life.” But that may be two to three weeks or months after the loss.

What is your guideline for asking if someone wants to be prayed with?

Many people will say yes to your praying because they don’t want to say no. They may just be in a place where they’re not interested in debating you. Ask to pray with someone anytime, but be willing to embrace a “no” answer. Also, frame your availability to pray as something you would like to do: “I would love to pray for you, would that be OK?” vs. “Would you like me to pray for you?” In other words, don’t put them in a position that forces them to respond as if they need your prayer. Treat people with love and respect, and don’t impose an expectation on them. And keep in mind that just because we put our words in a prayer format doesn’t mean they’re the right words. Whether you pray, listen, sit with or cry with someone … are you offering a Christlike presence?

Assuming that a person is OK with your offer to pray, how would you lift up a person in the midst of a crisis?

After making sure I acknowledge that I am the one who has the desire to pray, I would pray like this for someone who has just lost a loved one:

“Lord, these people are overwhelmed with grief. Let them experience Your comfort. Meet them in their shattered dreams, in their unmet needs and in their unfulfilled expectations. In the surprise and shock of their loss—and the uncertainty it brings—allow them to experience Your comfort, to experience You as a safety net, so that when they walk back out on the high wire of life and feel themselves falling, they are consumed by the safety of Your arms.”

When are the times when we should keep our mouths shut?

So much depends on the nature of the situation you find yourself in. If someone is clearly overwhelmed with grief and sobbing, I don’t say a thing. I’m not going to interrupt the person’s tears. But I may say, “I’d love to sit here with you” and ask if that’s OK. Later, I might ask, “Are you in a place where you could tell me what’s going on? What’s going through your mind?” The person may respond, “I just don’t know how I’ll go on.” To which I might respond, “How about we try not to sort that out right now. Tell me about the circumstances you’re in.” That will lead me to determine what is most pragmatic in the moment. It may be as simple as offering a glass of water or a tissue; it may be an opportunity for them to receive comfort, empathy, sympathy; or it may be an opportunity for them to vent—and for me just to listen.

What other ways do people express their sorrow or hurt?

Anger is one manifestation, and it can show itself in different ways. It can burst out suddenly, sometimes directed at carefree people who are enjoying life. A woman who was grieving over the devastating actions of her daughter said to me, “You know I love the Lord, and I love people, but if one more person tells me a success story about their kid who’s going to be a doctor or a lawyer or getting straight A’s in school … I’ll throw them out of my house.” As believers with Christlike sensitivity, we can allow hurting people to share what they keep buried inside. Part of manifesting Christ’s presence in crisis is just basic sensitivity.

Anger may also show itself in blame: “The police could have prevented it! The doctor could have saved him!” And God—He gets blamed for everything. Let people rant. We don’t need to defend God. Say something like, “It must be so difficult. I can’t imagine how you’re coping.” They’re thriving on their anger, but we can deflate it with our empathy.

What about other stages of grief?

Many think that grief reactions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are relatively short-term problems. People often hear, “You’ll get over it soon.” Unfortunately, you do not “get over” grief or PTSD. You only go into it and either stay there or you go through it. Years later some are still stuck in it. Unfortunately, we will not be able to erase the white board of history. Tragedies will always be painful, but as people de-toxify, they experience growth and strength from the event as it is woven into the very fabric of who they are.

When people walk through their pain with a Christian who is offering love, care, non-judgmental compassion, empathy and Christlike sensitivity, they experience the sense of being loved through their anger, ugliness, pain, embittered comments, cynicism and sarcasm. As a result, rather than coming out weaker, bitter and overwhelmed, they come out stronger, wiser and ready for life in the aftermath of the loss because they’ve experienced Christ walking alongside them. Christians can have such a positive affect. It’s not about the right words—it’s actually very much about avoiding the wrong words.

When people question why evil exists, especially after a national tragedy, how do you bridge your conversations to the spiritual?

Every situation is different, but the key is bringing it back to the person’s own life. If someone says, “I can’t believe God would allow this to happen,” remember that the goal is to personalize your conversation, not to have a cognitive debate. Don’t allow your conversation to go to the “Why?” questions. Instead, try, “Clearly this tragedy resonates with something out of your life experience. Can you tell me what that’s about?” If the person says something like, “I lost my child when she was in college so I empathize with these parents who lost their kids,” then you’re engaging. You might respond, “So the common experience for you is grief. How did you get through that?”

Now you have a place to enter the spiritual realm: “How has your faith affected the way you cope with this?” Or, “You told me that your mom used to take you to church every Sunday. Has this event in your life taken you back to that experience in any way?”

The bottom line is that you can’t beat the Kingdom into people, but God can work through you to love it into them. Continually ask yourself, “How can I be salt and light, comfort and peace, empathy and sincerity, respect and gentleness, patience and tolerance?” And be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, seeking His wisdom to guide your thoughts, words and actions in order to offer His presence in crisis to the suffering. One script doesn’t fit all, and there isn’t a protocol other than asking yourself, “What does it mean to be truly Christlike?”

While these suggestions for caring for the hurting are not typically considered pre-evangelism, they often do pave the way for the listener to come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Follow the Steps to Peace online to learn about Jesus or recommit your life to Him.

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