Caring beyond words

Jun 2014    

Our human instinct is to congregate around someone who is grieving, to show support and solidarity with their loss, and perhaps with time to get them back into the swing of things.

An oft-asked question is: “What can I say or do to help someone who is going through a time of grief?” We can all identify with the feelings behind that question, of awkwardness and being tongue-tied. Often, we search fruitlessly to find the right things to say, to bring relief or hope to our grieving loved one or a wounded friend. We tend to try to answer the unfathomable questions of “why”: Why did this have to happen? Why did God not intervene and act to spare us from this pain?

Our human instinct is to congregate around someone who is grieving, to show support and solidarity with their loss, and perhaps with time to get them back into the swing of things. Admittedly, some of us may want to shy away from doing so, to avoid the unease of feeling helpless, or for fear that another’s sadness might trigger our own unfinished grief. Or perhaps we are present in spite of our own discomfort, only because we want to avoid being labelled as uncaring.

But being present, what should one say or do? Job’s three friends in the Bible show us a negative example. They end up interrogating Job and trying to get him to own up to the wrong that he surely must have done to suffer such great misfortune. I suspect their inquisition was spurred by the desire present in all of us to understand the reason for bad things happening.

We seem to think that if only we can understand, then perhaps we can accept the events. We hold on to the idea that things must make sense to us before they are allowed into existence. Perhaps we also have the notion that if we can understand why, we can do something in the future to prevent such things from happening again.

Another negative example: Telling the grieving person to pull themselves together, be strong, not feel so sad, get on with life, not wallow in self-pity, and so on. Often, these statements are made with good intentions. However, no matter how well-intentioned and sound they may be, they produce very little good. On the contrary, they may leave the listener feeling judged, inadequate, and self-indulgent.

To be fair, Job’s three friends started well. They came, gave their time and sat silently with Job. This was not easy. Job must have been a terrible sight, being covered in ashes of mourning and boils from his many afflictions.

They sat and said little, at least initially. This, we are now told, is the recommended response to show support to a person who feels that all that is meaningful in their lives is lost. The term “companioning” has been coined to describe this disciplined and measured response.

Where needed and appropriate, practical help can also be offered. An elderly widow in grief remembered the silent gesture of a male visitor who brought a packet of chicken rice. She did not know who he was nor remember much of those few days, but the kindness of the act was not lost.

After a time of silence, Job’s friends felt compelled to speak. We must consider this compulsion: If this urge is driven by our own needs, whether to feel that we are being useful or to break the atmosphere of anguish, they should not take precedence. We are there to comfort the grieving persons – it is their needs we should be attuned to. If what is required is silence, that is what we should give. This requires selfless discipline as we are often more sensitive to our own needs than to others’.

The paradox of care is that the less we are hurried with trying to show care, the more it is experienced by others. The more time we give for the emotions of others to heal, the faster the healing process will be.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.


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