Comforting the Suffering

What can we do for someone who has lost a loved one to death? I lost my first wife (1980), father (1994) and son (2001) to death, and my second wife and I divorced in 2001. I share here based more on my experience than any expertise.  

  1. Have a healthy sense of inadequacy. The worst and most offensive thing to a sufferer is for someone to come with all the answers.
  2. Be there and be silent. From a sufferer’s point of view, the most important thing is not what you say but your presence. Be present and be God’s instrument of comfort. 
  3. Listen. It’s difficult to listen to a sufferer, and the tendency is to try and change the subject. Take a cue from the sufferer. If they lead you into remembering their loved one, go with their lead. If they talk about something more superficial, talk about the topic they choose. Be willing to listen to questioning doubt. Job’s friends were unwilling to hear Job’s questioning and tried to stop him. What we do represents God for them.  They will experience God’s listening through our ears.
  4. Be willing to experience pain with the sufferer. We may have enough problems in our own lives that we often don’t want to experience the pain and hear about the problems of others, but a sufferer needs someone to listen, feel with them. Proverbs 25:2. When we are willing to sit with others in their feelings then they can also feel the empathy of God’s own presence.
  5. Express your love without interpretive statements. Don’t say, “It’s all for the best,” or “God plucked a rose from his garden.” Never try to interpret why a person died or what God’s intent was—this is not only arrogant but doesn’t help the sufferer. Say something that you feel, such as “I feel awful about this. This is terrible.” Never tell a sufferer how they should feel, but you can tell them how you feel, that is, how you hurt with them and how awful you feel about the circumstances. 
  6. Do something. Don’t say, “If there’s anything, anything I can do, call me.” Why not? Because this places on the sufferer the responsibility to do something, to figure out something for the person to do for them and make a call. This is a time when the sufferer doesn’t need more burdens. Have you ever really been called by someone who is suffering after you told them this? Most likely, you’ve been called rarely, if ever. The sufferer may not want to inconvenience someone nor decide who to inconvenience. Statements like, “Call me if there’s anything I can do” only extend the suffering rather than helping. What needs done? In some cases, everything needs to be done. Do something for the sufferer that you perceive they need. Mow their lawn, take them some food, help them clean their house, change the oil in their car. Show up and do.


10 Responses to “Comforting the Suffering”

  1.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I’ve heard it preached that Job’s three friends did their best work in the first seven days of silence that they sat and grieved with him … then ruined it by opening their mouths.

  2. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    They were comforters in silence who became, according to Job, “miserable comforters” [text uses the same word in 2:11 and 16:2] when they opened their mouths.

    In the first cycle of speeches their point was: Job, you better repent so you can get your stuff back. In the second cycle of speeches their point was: shut up, don’t talk to God like that. And in the third cycle of speeches their point was: you are too far gone to be helped now.

    Unfortunately, I have either experienced or heard such advice given to sufferers. When Job 3-27 (the dialogues) are not read, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the friends. Their mistakes are not uncommon for “friends.”

  3.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    I have never experienced the kind of suffering you have. But when my world was rocked, seemingly to the core, on Dec 16 I knew angst. That confusion, I doubt, is really over. So I can identify with all of your suggestions. I recall (because they still come) the “interpretive” commentary that many shared with me. All they did was make me more angry. One of the worst (in my jaded opinion) was “God is blessing you through this.” Well it did not and does not seem like a blessing. Another was “I don’t think you should feel that way about God/say that to God/etc.” What else am I supposed to say?

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby V

  4.   Trent Tanaro Says:

    Thanks for the words of insight on suffering. I have not encountered the level of suffering you have. We lost my mother to a car accident in ’99 outside of Nashville. My father(Mike Tanaro) was the pulpit minister at Lone Oak Church of Christ in Paducah, KY at the time. It was humbling to see the love of our Church family there during that time.
    Since then I have had a bit of a personal ministry of my own to be there for those who have been through the same. Your words have given me a better grasp of the reality of serving others in that area as I minister to the people here in our comminity. Thank you

    Trent Tanaro
    Earth, TX

  5.   leeh Says:

    Great to see you return to the world of Blogging. We have missed your wisdom and insight. Your thoughts on comforting the suffering are so very right on. Thanks!

  6.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    oh boy!

    thank you john mark.
    i am just starting to read now.
    i hope you are well
    my brother
    blessings rich

  7. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Suffering is always so relative and whatever it is fills the spaces of our life as it consumes us. All suffering is unbearable and it comes in so many different forms. Whatever it is, it is not what is supposed to be in terms of God’s creative and eschatological intent. Thanks for the comments everyone.

  8.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Whatever it is, it is not what is supposed to be in terms of God’s creative and eschatological intent. Thanks for the comments everyone.
    What a heartbreak
    the delivering of the penalty, the groaning of creation, what it could have been and what it had become.
    Faith and hope and love his will expressed, over the centuries, accumulated to one great righteous act of faithfulness.
    Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
    Why have you forsaken me.
    It is finished.
    Into your hand’s I commend my spirit.

    The way of faithfulness.
    As expressed by God his son.
    The love of another at the expense of self.

  9.   Quiara Says:

    Thank you for sharing. Even people who’ve been in grief states often have trouble articulating needs and knowing what is helpful.

  10. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Yes, indeed. I am often at a loss for what to say, and when I feel that way I seek to be present, remain silent and listen.

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