October 4, 2014

How to Comfort a Mourning Friend

Almost six years ago when I was a junior in high school (boy, did that fly by fast), a dear friend of mine and the heart of our hometown passed away from an aggressive cancer. I suppose that death could be considered an "expected one" (I absolutely hate saying that) or one that didn’t come as a shock after supporting her through a brave cancer fight for 10 months. Regardless, it was obviously very hard on the community and everyone who was touched by her beautiful life.

Flash forward six years to present time. Two months ago today, my college roommate woke up to a disturbing phone call from across the country informing her that suddenly her little brother had passed away. Moments later, she attempted to call someone for support, for an ear, to wake up from this undesirable dream she was experiencing, for anything. That person was me, and in a daze I slept through the whole thing. A little while later (after a few snoozes), I woke up, sent her a quick text saying something along the lines of, "Hey, sorry I missed your call! I'm heading to class for finals all day but I'll call you this afternoon. Can't wait to catch up!" When she responded saying, "Alex, I need you. It's an emergency," I called back immediately.

There is absolutely nothing fathomable, bearable nor comparable about a death such as this one. It takes anyone that is affected back to their last interaction with him: the last words they exchanged, the last text message that was sent, the last fight they had, that last meal they shared together, the last prayer they pleaded, the last laugh they both cried to, the last hug that was exchanged, the last phone call that was ignored. It makes every phone call from that moment on sting, every dessert tray nauseating, every flower arrangement suffocating, every delivered dinner unappetizing, and every person's solemn stare unbearable.

And that's exactly what I got to live four days later. As soon as I could, I rushed to my best friend's side and the moment I walked into her house, I smelled a floral shop. At first breath, it was lovely. Then I remembered: her little brother just died. These were sympathy flowers. These were, "I'm so sorry, we love you," flowers. These were, "We wish we could be there with you," flowers. These were, "What-do-we-do-when-a-21-year-old-dies" flowers. These were, "I-have-no-idea-what-to-say-so-enjoy-watching-these-flowers-die" flowers. It was overbearing.

To stand and be present with my dear friend during the worst week of her life was the least I was able to do, but the best thing I could have done. I feel so blessed to be living in Milwaukee, not far from her hometown. With just a quick road trip, I was granted the opportunity to visit her and her family for a few days after her brother had passed and it was one of the most heart-wrenching yet powerful experiences of my life to date.

Watching a family mourn for a 21-year-old son, brother, uncle, nephew, classmate, teammate, and friend was understandably tragic. In all honesty, I was mourning too! But by the grace of God, I was also able to crack open my already broken heart and hold theirs close to mine while together we wept, remembered, shared, laughed, wept more, ate from cookie trays, ate frozen dinners, breathed in the smell of flowers. I took the last-minute road trip expecting to be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to scream at, an open heart to heal with, and a set of open arms for immediate comfort.

But then after a while, this strange thing started happening. I felt myself beginning to need strength. I found myself feeling weak. I found myself needing open arms to hold me. I found myself struggling to fight back tears and to find, not necessarily words to say (here's the number one secret to death: there are no right words), but how to help the grieving mother, father, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. That second night, I remember staying up after everyone and pouring into my journal. Pouring my heart and being poured back into. He had been there the whole time.

Which is when I was graciously reminded of a great promise that is to never be forgotten: our Almighty God is the Ultimate Healer. Only He can permanently comfort us. Only He can provide the immediate strength we need each day. Only He can soothe the painful grieving process. I was not just a shoulder to cry on or an ear to scream at. My fragile heart and mind would have never been able to do that on my own. I am not Jesus (He's so much cooler), but in that moment late Saturday night, I realized that He had gotten me there safely and provided me with the appropriate therapy that was needed throughout each moment, and the moods were always changing. Therefore, I knew and was relieved that I could not make that situation better. I had already known that, obviously, but I needed to stop worrying and just be. Be present like I initially intended to be.

I am not a great healer nor do I calm weary hearts nor do I cure the broken. I do not have the magic words to say to someone who is mourning (there are no right words, in case you missed that part) or fighting the harsh reality of a lost loved one. What I do have is prayer, presence, patience and most importantly, love. Those were the four most important things I packed with me that weekend. 

After my quick trip there, I made another quick jump across the country: home! In the midst of many hours spent traveling (I miss those quick San Diego flights), I was reading the book Rediscovering Catholicism by Matthew Kelley (an incredible one that I highly recommend, even if you’re not Catholic!). I began with a chapter discussing the idea of discipleship and it struck a good chord in my heart that reverberated for hours. The line that caught my attention was discussing Jesus’ attitude. I read, “He certainly didn’t ask himself, ‘What is the least I can do and still bring salvation to humanity?’ No, he asked, ‘What is the most I can do?’” Boom. Yep. That's Him.

How many times have we encountered moments and immediately looked for the short cut or the easiest way around a situation? An infinite amount of times, I'm sure. In my case, every single day, multiple times per day on average. Can't say I'm too proud of that.

The chapter continued on: “'Go and make disciples of every nation.’ (Matthew 28:19) He did not say ‘Go and make followers of every nation.’ It is easy to be a follower, but to be a disciple means to be a student—to be humble, docile, and teachable, and to listen.”
Shoot. We can't just be followers anymore? We have to lead as examples? I thought being a follower of Christ meant that He would lead me wherever I needed to go. There’s some truth in that, but being a follower implies that no work or forward progress is being made. On the other hand, discipline is the path that leads to fullness of life. Being a disciple requires discipline. The chapter then describes the four major aspects of the human person: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Then it continues:

“When we eat well, exercise often, and sleep regularly, we feel more fully alive physically. When we love, when we give priority to the significant relationships in our lives, when we give of ourselves to help others in their journey, we feel more fully alive emotionally. When we study our vision of ourselves and God, the world expands, and we feel more fully alive intellectually. When we take a few moments each day in the classroom of silence to come before God in prayer, openly and honestly, we experience life more fully spiritually. All of these life-giving endeavors require discipline. When are we most fully alive? When we embrace a life of discipline. The human person thrives on discipline.”

I love everything about that paragraph, which is why I had to quote the entire thing (I made it smaller to seem a little better, ha). If this were high school English class, this blog entry would be an automatic fail. But it’s not.

The human person thrives on discipline. Are you thriving or surviving today? In my real, raw, honest way I’m going to admit that most mornings, I am barely surviving. I wish with my entire heart that I was a morning person and could wake up with as much joy as I go to bed with, but I become a morning person about half an hour after I get out of bed, which is usually half an hour after I wake up. It takes me a while to become alive and in those moments each morning, I’m surviving. But what about the other 23 hours and 30 minutes each day? Lately, I have been trying to keep myself in check throughout each day by asking myself simply, “Are you thriving? Is what you’re doing challenging you to thrive? Are your actions those of survival and desperation or of heart and courage?”

Reflecting back on the beginning of my post, would we be surviving or thriving the moment we woke up if we knew what the outcome of that day was? I know for a fact that my life would run a little differently.

The last portion of the chapter that really stuck with me was the section on love. I love love and I love to study love and talk about love. I love Jesus’ love for us and how it is unconditional every day. I love that love makes the world go 'round and that we are called to love not only our family and peers, but also our enemies. Love is a beautiful thing.

So as I was saying, love is the core of Jesus' philosophy. But, in order to love, we must be free from ourselves and ready to experience selflessness. "For to love is to give your self freely and without reservation. Yet, to give your self—to another person, to an endeavor, or to God—you must first possess your self. This possession of self is freedom. It is a prerequisite for love, and is attained only through discipline." 

Love is beautiful and a big reason I was able to experience mourning in such a way that weekend. Those few days I spent with my friend and her family were likely some of the worst days they have ever had, but to be there loving them through the hurt and pain gave my heart a little slice of hope. It gave me a glimpse of peace, like a ray of sunshine through a vicious thunderstorm (I know what those are now since living in the Midwest). It made me thankful. How can I be thankful during such a tragic time, one may ask? Jesus. I was thankful for the chance to be with my friend, for the opportunity to open my heart and share love, for the grace and love of Christ, and for the comfort we all were able to experience that weekend. Although much of our time was spent sighing, crying, watching home videos, reading old journals, sorting through scrapbooks, ignoring smelly flowers, and avoiding to-go trays, we were all able to grow and love one another and for that, I am so thankful.

As a minor disclaimer, in times of tragedy, the last words a mourning person may want to hear are, "It's okay, God has a plan," or "This will all work out if you rely on Jesus." In the midst of the most painful suffering, it is not necessary to speak at all. However, thriving, having discipline and loving are all non-verbal actions.

So, how to comfort a mourning friend?

Be there. 

Be present.


Expect nothing.


Allow Jesus to use you.


Don't stress yourself out over what words you will say like I did. Silence, eye contact and love speak louder than any words ever could. Life is full of twists and turns, ups, downs, and loopty-loops, but having concrete friends and family who will love you consistently is one of the most encouraging aspects of life. We are called to love one another. I like to think of love being unconditional, because that way there can't be conditions put on love and friendship. So, if you like to take short cuts like I do, loving everyone is a great short cut to start with.

Additionally, we have this incredible Savior who surpasses all expectations a person can dream of and who will love, heal, comfort, care for, and encourage us on the long road called grieving. He's really special and already knows where you and your friends' hearts are at.

To close, don't shy away from people who are mourning, or even from your own mourning. Embrace it, as painful as that may seem; it's an unfortunate characteristic of life that we encounter eventually, but running away is the last thing to do. Be there, be present, spread love, and count on Jesus. No matter if a death is forthcoming, expected or sudden, everyone grieves and no one can do it alone.

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