April 18, 2021

The Lonely Road of Sorrow

          When you are traveling the lonely road of sorrow, you don’t need to have someone tell you, “I know how you feel.” Ironically, what you need most is someone who listens compassionately while you share how you feel.

          That’s one of the lessons I have learned in the weeks since my wife died. If you tell me you know how I feel, I may smile and not respond but inwardly I am thinking, “No, you have no idea how I am feeling.” Truth is, no one knows how another person is feeling, so it is presumptuous to think you do. You only know how I feel if you stop talking long enough for me to tell you how I feel.

          I became aware of this important lesson as I reflected on the way several friends reached out to me in my sorrow. Martha got me thinking about this in a note with a card she sent. She reminded me of a Harvard study which concluded that close relationships contribute to our health and happiness. Our friends and fellow companions in Christ are the catalysts of true joy. “Friends make the journey of grief so much easier to travel,” Martha said. “I could not have made it through my grief without the help of my friends.”

          We can learn the same lesson from reading Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul tells his friends, his partners in the gospel, that he thanks God for them every time he remembers them. He prays for them with joy and longs for them with the affection of Christ. Yes, friends matter, especially those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

          So, how do friends help assuage our grief. They do so by patiently listening as we share how we feel. Bonny and Tommy came by. They sat on the porch with me. No sermon. No advice. No reprimand. When they drove away two hours later, it dawned on me that I had done most of the talking. They brought no fruit or flowers but simply offered me the greater gift of listening. They never said, “We care about you.” Their caring was manifested by the way they listened to me.

          Eddie brings breakfast on Thursday mornings. One morning Ron came with him; on another morning Dick came. They did not tell me they knew how I was feeling; they just let the pancakes and bacon tell me they loved me. And once again, when they left I realized I had done most of the talking. They had listened patiently without one time trying to “straighten out” my thinking.

          My friends are teaching me how to effectively comfort friends who are grieving.  The secret in bearing one another’s burdens is simply to “be there.” You can fake love but you can’t fake being there. And being there, patiently listening, with a friend whose pain seems unbearable, can make all the difference.

When Jill’s son died one morning, I rushed to her home. When I asked how she was doing, her reply underlined what I am saying: “I am ok,” she said; “Jane came.” I looked at Jane and silently prayed, “Lord, don’t let me ever forget those two words – ‘Jane came.’” Her friend Jane was there, offering the loving gift of listening.

          The death of someone you love is a stunning reminder of our mortality. Suddenly the world is turned upside down. Someone is missing. A chair at the table is empty. Tools once used are now idle. You feel numb and helpless. Yet life goes on. And you must find a way to go on.

          Caring friends can help us find the strength to deal with the reality of death. Little help comes from reading a poem that says, “I did not die; I am still with you.” No, the person who died in my arms and was buried in the family cemetery plot is actually dead and gone. I don’t need a sentimental poem; I need a friend who will listen to me explain how it feels to know that my wife will never again sit at the table with me, or listen to my stories, or straighten my tie or hug our great grandchildren. 

          So, look around you. You probably know someone who is struggling with the emotions that grief produces – anger, guilt, bitterness, emptiness, loneliness, fear and self-pity, to mention a few. You could possibly help that person, not with the advice to “get over it and move on,” but by simply being there until the pain diminishes.

          When you lovingly listen to a grieving friend, as though you are hurting with them, that friend may begin to think that God is also listening, and that He also hurts when His children suffer. Your being there may give someone hope that God is there also, and that He has sent you to make the lonely road of sorrow easier to navigate. The privilege of providing loving support to a fellow struggler by listening, may be the secret of a life well lived. And sooner or later, each of us will need that support. + + +