'The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit' Psalm 34:18
'He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds' Psalm 147:3
'The Spirit of the Soverign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners...' Isaiah 61:1
I have read a couple of articles recently that have made me think about how we draw close to the brokenhearted. The first was from a secular source, where a woman wrote about her experience of her child's neonatal death, and how it affected her. She particularly spoke about the social taboo that having a child die seems to bring, and how she wishes that more people would speak about her son and ask what his name was. The second was from the Desiring God website, and gives some practical, Bible-based wisdom about drawing near to those who are grieving; a friend whose daughter died last year commented that it is the kind of article that should be printed out and given to people at funerals because it is so clear and hits the nail on the head.
In the months following our daughter's death ten years ago, I remember feeling very isolated. There was a really tough phase several months after the funeral, when we were back at work and back to 'normality', and yet nothing felt normal at all. At the time, I presumed the feelings of isolation resulted from the grief itself, perhaps a kind of depersonalisation. I also wondered whether my expectations of others were unrealistic, or that it might relate to the fact we had moved between different countries and therefore didn't have the firmly established long term relationships that might be most supportive. Despite being actively involved in churches wherever we had been based, we did not on any occasion have a visit from a member of a pastoral team (nor a phonecall or an email containing more than a sentence in response to emails that we pro-actively sent) - I remember finding that a bit strange, but presumed that there were many more important things to deal with than a young couple whose first child had recently died. To be honest, there were days when I felt like a bit of a nuisance, aware that there were many people who had far more difficult circumstances than we did, and that we should somehow just 'get on with it'. I also didn't want a visit out of pity, and since we didn't have any particular theological questions about what had happened, it felt like there was nothing that anybody could have offered anyway. There were a handful of good friends who did stay close to us, or at least to me, but there were times when I really wanted one of the men from church to spend more time with my husband. People would sometimes ask me how he was doing, but nobody seemed able to ask him that question even when I felt like I was begging them to. Let me be clear - we were not social hermits during that time, and we did spend plenty of time with friends; to the outsider it may well have seemed that we were functioning more or less as we previously had done. But what was missing was the specific conversations where somebody that we looked up to for guidance and counsel would initiate a conversation with us about what had happened, about how we were currently doing and gave us the opportunity, if needed, to talk things through.
It has taken me ten years to say that, and I hope that writing it today, it can be appreciated that I am not writing out of bitterness. Rather I am writing because of sadness and frustration since I have heard very similar stories many times over the past ten years. Each family is different, each support network is different, each child was unique. But there are also a couple of generalisations that I think can be made, and which perhaps those seeking to support a family in such times might wish to consider.
The first 'theme' would be that sometimes our church leaders (whether that be the main leaders, or the leaders of different Bible study groups or ministries) have a God-given responsibility to their church members. If there is a family who are going through a situation which seems particularly challenging, care should be taken to ensure that they are not 'falling between the cracks' - make sure that somebody is committed to following up with them, visiting them, contacting them, praying with them, even (and perhaps especially) when it feel so hard and dark. This may not be particularly easy or feel rewarding. But unless it is made clear that such contact is not desired, I would really encourage you to reach out regularly, particularly in the months after all the drama.
Secondly, it often seems that people who do not have any particular faith are more supportive in times of real trial. It is as though they are more comfortable with uncertainty, with deep and probing questions which do not have easy solutions, or indeed any answers at all. They seem better with the silence, with the pain that cannot really be expressed, with the lack of clear solutions and the need to just be present. I wonder if Christians, perhaps particularly leaders, can feel inadequate if they don't have the words and the Bible expositions to 'solve' the problems and bring comfort. If there were 'easy' answers or quick solutions, I would imagine many families would have found these. Of course, there are many wonderful passages of the Bible which speak to suffering - that it is to be expected in this world, that it is no surprise to God, that God teaches us so very much through it, that it is common to man, that one day there will be no more sorrow or pain - there are these wonderful passages in 1 Peter, James, Romans, Revelation and so forth. I can recite all of these from memory with ease, but that knowledge of Scripture did not mean that I did not need spiritual encouragement. There are times when a person who is grieving is very familiar with the 'suffering' passages in the Bible, can believe them with their whole heart, but still be overwhelmed by a grief that cannot be put into words. There is a time for silence, for just being there. There is a time to just listen. Please don't label people as 'coping well' when you actually don't know how they are really doing. Please don't put people on a pedestal because they frequently testify to God's goodness and grace through their trials. Please remember that grief and faith are not opposites, and these people may be suffering more than you could imagine (and you didn't think to ask, because they seemed to be 'coping well').
Thirdly, in the case of child death, please don't forget the fathers! I wrote about this here a few years ago. Sadly it still seems the case that the mothers are seen as the one who has been bereaved. It is a generalisation of course, but women tend to be more expressive of their emotions, whereas men may be more likely to withdraw. A woman might become very emotional whereas a man might seem more irritable and unapproachable. It might be easier to draw alongside the woman, but the man is facing the same grief and needs encouragement and support to lead his family through this time of trial.
Fourthly, most grieving people seem to appreciate the chance to talk about their loved on, to hear their name, to hear stories about ways in which they influenced the lives of others. Sometimes there is a need to talk about the trials and the pain, and at other times to share again the stories of God's grace and faithfulness. As the years go by, sometimes the need for this becomes greater, the need to have that tangible memory that their loved one was a very real part of their family, and had a life which mattered. I do not know of anybody who would be offended if they were asked to explain a bit more about how things felt, or to be asked about what might be the best way to support them. In general, I think most people are also happy to make it clear when they would rather not talk.
One of the reasons I have blogged less over recent months is because I feel to an extent that the same challenges tend to recur through life and I have often written a bit about a particular topic. That being said, I will flag up some things I have written in the past few years about how grief changes with time, and what I think a family might really need. Six years after she died, I wrote this. Seven years afterwards, I put together a kind of 'wish list'. Ten years afterwards, I reflected on some of the precious lessons we had learned. There are other links within those posts which might be helpful.
I do not wish to imply that the death of a child is somehow different from any other kind of overwhelming grief. The death of a spouse. The death of a close friend. Severe illness either personally or in a loved one which causes the death of life as it once was, perhaps the death of hopes and dreams. There are many situations which bring deep grief. And I imagine that many of these feel just as 'taboo' as the death of a child.
I write today partly out of frustration, and partly out of sadness. As Christians we should do better to support our brothers and sisters in their time of need. Whilst we should 'study and do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, who correctly handles and rightly divides the word of truth', we should remember that there are times to support more practically, and times to support simply through presence. I will not spend time today looking at all the Bible passages about how we are to relate to 'one another' through times of joy and sorrow; there is much that can be said, but I think many Christians will be familiar with these. But I think it is important to re-iterate that this is not always easy, now always rewarding, and at times can simply be tough. There will be times when we feel totally uncomfortable, and unsure of what is the best thing. I feel that way when spending time with the bereaved, even though I've experienced a couple of difficult bereavements (my infant daughter as I've already written about, and also the death of my mother by suicide when I was 16, which I have never written about). It's uncomfortable and painful because it is simply uncomfortable and painful - it is not how things were meant to be. The chances are, the grieving person has no real idea what they really want or feel they need, but it might be worth asking. If you want to know how it feels, ask!
I hope that by writing on this topic, you might feel better equipped to draw near to bring comfort to those who are brokenhearted.