As I listened to my friend tell her story, I could see the look of worry on her husband’s face. He was reliving the incident with each word. This health crisis which had almost cost her life.
I searched for the words, listening to each detail, and wondered how I could say anything that wouldn’t sound foolish.
But before I could utter a syllable, the woman standing between us interrupted the silence with her own story, one which she obviously thought was a near parallel to one we’d just heard.
I was speechless. I wasn’t sure how this was compassionate or helpful, but I was also keenly aware of the number of times I’d done the exact same thing.
I often think that for every friend, family member, and peer’s trial or difficulty, I have to find a common ground. Because after all, how can I be helpful if I can’t relate?
Sometimes what we mistake as commiserating is actually just focusing the attention on ourselves. Sometimes what we think is putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is turning empathy into self-absorption.
Words are not needed in every tragedy, loss, or heartbreak. A listening ear goes much further than rambling mouth.
When in doubt, I turn to Jesus himself. He was the ultimate example of humility and selflessness.
As I thought about what compassion looks like, I came to the passage before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But before he performs the miracle, he mourns. He shows his humanity and deep love for those who surround him by doing something we only see him do a few places in scripture: He weeps.
While reading this passage, I was stuck by one detail. Jesus’ words are few. He tells Lazarus’ sisters what he’s going to do and how to receive eternal life.
But mostly, he grieves for his friends. His tears show what his words cannot: that when we suffer, he suffers.
Jesus did not simply say he was sorry or tell a story about a time when he experienced a worse tragedy. He felt their pain. He grieved there in the midst of death, even though he knew life was eminent.
In that moment, his humanity was more important than his power. His people needed to see that he was not only God; he was flesh and blood.
1 John 3:18 says,
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and truth.” 1 John 3:18
Sometimes, a hug goes a lot further than a speech or a platitude. When loss is great, simply being present is often the most comforting thing you can do.
As I reflect on this passage and others in scripture, three questions come to mind. Questions which we can ask ourselves before opening our mouths.
- Is this helpful? Does this person need advice or someone to commiserate? Or do they just need me to listen?
- Is this compassionate? Is what I’m saying showing love and kindness? Or am I simply trying to draw attention to myself?
- Is this the right time? When a person is in the trenches of grief, sometimes he or she needs time and space before hearing words which may seem helpful. Everyone mourns differently.
Above all else, seek wisdom from the One who promises to give it generously to anyone who asks. (James 1:5)
And remember, sometimes saying nothing is the wisest decision we can make.