Dee’s Story: Don’t Send a Sympathy Card

by Dee Brestin
The God of All Comfort published by Zondervan
©2009 Used with permission

There’s an invisible knife sticking out of my heart. My fifty-nine-year old husband lost his valiant battle with colon cancer. I wait for him to call, to hear his hearty laugh – but silence looms. I long to talk to him about our five children – but he is gone. My body aches to be held by him in the night, to have his deep voice pray over me, or to hear him recite “Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod,” the nursery rhyme he thought might lull me to sleep – but I am alone under the covers. My grief counselor tells me to accept the reality of my husband’s death – to stop tormenting myself. I must accept that I will go to him, but he will not come to me.

I don’t particularly like being around Christians who haven’t suffered deeply. They can be like Job’s friends, offering pat answers, misapplying God’s truths, bumping up against the knife they do not see. They smile and quote Romans 8:28 to me. I cringe. They send a card with a platitude pointing out the silver lining to my pain. I close it quickly. I know they mean well. But they plunge the knife to excruciating depths of pain. Proverbs 25:20 warns: Singing to someone in deep sorrow is like pouring vinegar in an open cut. (NEV)

But oh, the comfort of being with those who have truly suffered. They see my invisible knife. They stay by my side when I am not pleasant and listen to me drone on. They’ve been there so they know better than to tell me God is sovereign and all things will work together for the good. I know that’s true, but I don’t want to hear it now. High-tide grief is not the time to speak solutions. (Women who have had miscarriages tell me the last thing they want to hear is: “You can have another baby.”) When one is grieving, it is the time to be silent, to hug, and to weep. I don’t know why it divides the grief to have someone weep with you, but it does. Friends like this are like Ruth, who having lost her own dear husband, could stand beside Naomi without trying to fix the unfixable. Ruth listened again and again to Naomi’s heartache, steadfastly staying at her side, knowing that if she did not grow weary in loving her mother-in-law, in God’s time, the woman who was saying, “Call me Bitter!” would become sweet again.

The friends who comfort me the most:

  • showed up (they came to the hospital, came to the funeral, came to my home).
  • wrote notes telling me what they loved about Steve, notes that didn’t try to “fix” my pain. I was always pleased to open a letter instead of a ready-made card. Though there were exceptional cards, and I appreciated being remembered, I knew a personal note was more likely to soothe my soul.
  • talk about Steve. (Some fear mentioning him, thinking it will remind me. Believe me, I haven’t forgotten – nor do I ever want to. It’s been two and a half years – and I cherish friends who will still bring up his name and a memory. I love it if they miss him too.)
  • don’t expect me to recover in a year. Instead, they are steadfast in asking me about how I’m handling my grief. They probe until I speak the truth, even if that truth releases tears. They aren’t frightened. They know tears bring healing.
  • intercede by praying Scripture for me, knowing the enemy attacks those who are down, but will flee when the Word is prayed.
  • When friends say the wrong thing, I have come to see the heart behind the awkward words or sentiment on the card. I must give grace, for I have done exactly the same thing, trying to fix the unfixable! Even now, on this side of a suffering, I can stammer on and say too much. Better to hug, to cry, and to say simply: “I am so sorry.”

When one is grieving, it is the time to be silent, to hug, and to weep. I don’t know why it divides the grief to have someone weep with you, but it does.