When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son

May 21 is an anniversary date for me. Joshua died on that day in 2001. SCAN1561

Many friends helped. Mark and Margo Black were there, Rubel and Myra Shelly were there, Mike Cope was there a few days before as well as John York, and we were surrounded by many others (including my Woodmont Hills Bible class). Gary Dodd painted a portrait of Joshua lying on his death bed; it still hangs in my home office. I am looking at it even as I type. My colleagues at Lipscomb University helped and many friends from Memphis (including Gary Ealy and Allen Black). There are too many to mention.

Many friends helped. They helped by their presence and actions. I don’t remember many words, but I do remember that they were there and what they did.

Words that express love and sympathy are welcome, but their presence spoke more than their words.  I am grateful for their friendship.

But friends don’t always help, and this is especially true when it comes to their words. Some words can sting and stir the pain rather than relieve it. Fortunately, that was rarely the case in my situation, though it is often the case for others.

For me, the memory of my friends on May 21 and the days following is comforting. They helped. They were present. But for others that memory is not as pleasant.

What do we do with unpleasant memories? What do we do with the anger we might feel towards those who mistreated–whether intentionally or unintentionally [which is usually the case]–us?

Those who know me also know that the Book of Job has significantly shaped my journey through grief ever since Sheila died in 1980. And that book speaks to the above question in a powerful way.

Job’s friends came to comfort him (Job 2:11), and they sat in silence with him for seven days. But they broke their silence when Job lamented that he had ever been born (Job 3). The dialogue between Job and his friends runs from Job 4 to Job 27.

  • The friends advise Job to repent (Job 4-14).
  • The friends insist that Job shut up (Job 15-21).
  • The friends give up any hope for Job’s faith (Job 22-27).

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

The depth of their “help” and “comfort”–Job calls them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2)–reaches unimaginable proportions. For example, Bildad opines that Job’s children died because they had sinned (Job 8:4).  They accuse of Job of self-righteousness, arrogance, and hidden sin (see Job 22).

What do you do with friends like these?  What did Job do?

Job forgave them. Job prayed for them (Job 42:7-9).

Suffering creates a crisis for not only the sufferer but for his or her friends. Everyone struggles with the reality, and no one really wants to face it.

We seek explanations or rationales. We shield ourselves from as much pain as possible. We defend God or accuse God. Our emotions range from shock to anger to indifference. This is true for friends as well as the sufferer. In fact, good friends suffer with the sufferer. And like the sufferer, the friends don’t know how to handle or process the grief and loss.

Sufferers sometimes resent the way the friends responded–they were not present or they said the wrong thing. And this resentment adds to the pain.

Job prayed for his friends.  Job forgave them, even after the harsh things they said to him.

Resentment increases suffering–it is a poison pill we take in the hope that the other person will die. It actually kills.  Forgiveness is the balm that heals resentment.

Job forgave his friends, and we sufferers can forgive those who increased our pain rather than relieving it.

Forgiveness is a comfort God works in our hearts and enables us to move forward in life.

On this day, the anniversary of my son’s death, I remember the comfort my friends provided by their presence and actions.

Thank you, friends.

8 Responses to “When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son”

  1.   Van Gilbert Says:

    Thanks, John Mark, for being such an effective wounded-healer for the rest of us.

  2.   Fran Winkles Says:

    John Mark…my heart aches for you.

  3.   Ginger McBride Says:

    Thanks for this post. Today it has been 7 months since my 8 day old son died. I still hear words that people said that hurt more than they helped. I work hard to not get angry with people who were just trying to help in the ways they knew how. I don’t think I realize how quickly I am to get angry about those words and how I do allow some of those things to taint my relationships. Thanks for the very important reminder. Fortunately for us, there were very few of those people and literally hundreds of others who provided some amount of comfort for us. I hope as time goes on the inadvertent hurtful words will fade and I will only remember the comfort and love expressed by our friends and families. Thanks for giving me hope that this can happen.

    And may you celebrate Joshua today and everyday.

  4.   Gayle Crowe Says:

    You have helped us all. I appreciate your being willing to share your insights.

  5.   Susan Sides Says:

    I understand how you feel. I lost a son in 2006 to suicide. I too appreciated friend support, but many who wanted to help were not helpful, but very hurtful instead. They were likely well meaning as Job’s friends seemed to be, but caused so much stress in asking questions best left unasked. Some wanted details of what, why and where it happened. Some wanted to know how I could not see any signs of this coming. And many more “nosy” questions. They did not realize that every time I answered questios to satisfy their curiosity, I had to re-live this tragedy. Finally I chose an answer of, “I am sorry, but it is too painful to talk about.” Even this did not dissuade everyone.

    In addition to the Bible, I read “Great Lives: Job: A Man of Heroic Endurance” by
    Chuck Swindoll, and would recommend. God bless you and your family at the loss of your son.

  6.   Gary Hampton Says:

    I cannot imagine the deep sorrow you must have felt, and still feel at the loss of Joshua. My thoughts are with you on the date of this sad anniversary.

  7.   Steven Creange Says:

    “The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
    ― Gerald Lawson Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss

    Thank you for sharing your pain and joy. May you continue to experience God’s presence and share it with others through your journey. You are in our prayers.

  8.   Randall Says:

    I will simply sit with you in cyberspace and keep my tongue silent.

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