When tragedy strikes, our impulse is to want to help those who are hurting. That is a good impulse, and a God-given one as well. The temptation, and the danger, present for people of faith is that in our helping, we choose words that may comfort, but that are not true or, at the very least, are beyond our knowledge.
I was first made aware of this watching an on-the-scene newscast following the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, MN on August 1, 2007. In that collapse, 13 people died and 145 were injured (1). A reporter was interviewing a man who had escaped injury in the collapse. I remember the reporter asking, “How does it feel, knowing that God spared you from harm?” The reporter was viewing the events and seeing God’s saving hand. What the reporter failed to think through was the theological ramifications of the question. IF God did indeed intervene of behalf of this man he was interviewing, what does that say about God’s apparent lack of intervention on behalf of the 13 dead and 145 injured? Was God unable to help them? Was God unwilling to help them? What gives?
What many people don’t think through is the unspoken truth claims that are present with what is spoken. It is here that bad theology compounds tragedy. When tragedy strikes we often try to make meaning and provide comfort. Even when things are meaningless, or senseless, we try to make meaning or sense of them. Often times, we make sense of the senseless by invoking a God that is bigger than what we don’t understand or comprehend. The problem is that in the myopia of our grief/shock/loss/etc. we cling to expressions that may comfort, but that are incomplete. Take a simple phrase, “God is in control”. What does that mean exactly? It’s easy to say. It’s harder to define in a way that makes sense of the world around us and doesn’t end up making God look petty, mean and downright evil in some respects.
So how do you respond to tragedy? How do you walk with a friend, neighbor or family member struggling with grief and loss? A few things that might (not) help;
- You can’t fix it. So don’t try. We are tempted to try to say the right thing that will make it all better. It seldom helps and often leads to saying things that are comforting in the moment, but may not be helpful in the long run.
- Be present. Don’t run away. We are tempted to distance ourselves from those who are grieving/sick/dying/etc. Keep moving towards friends who are grieving. It’s hard. Be present.
- Be safe. Give those grieving the permission to be as they are. Everyone grieves in different ways at different times. Don’t judge someone or try to force a particular way of being onto them.
- Be wise. What you believe and what you know are two different things. Talking about things you believe as if they are facts is often where bad theology enters the scene. Being certain of what you believe doesn’t make what you believe certain.
- 3 Key Words: I don’t know! This is the best answer to a question for which you do not (or couldn’t possibly) know the answer to. We are sometimes attempted to affirm ideas that might not be true that others express in their grief.
- Be honest. I was once asked, by a grieving mom, if God took her adult daughter via death because God needed her in heaven. I was tempted to say “yes” to comfort her. I said “No. I don’t believe so.” Saying “yes” might have alleviated my discomfort, but it would not have helped the mom in the end. In the end, when the fog cleared, she would have lost trust in me or God or both.
- Pray. I believe prayer works on multiple levels. I believe that God is real and listens to our prayers. I also know that prayer helps people express thoughts and talk about things that they might not express in other forms of communication. [That last statement doesn’t imply there isn’t a God who is listening, it simple means that prayer works on multiple levels. I suspect God knew that when God told us to pray.]
- Keep walking. Caring for friends, loved ones and neighbors in times of tragedy is not a “one and done” event. It’s the continuation of a relationship that existed before the tragedy and still exists after. Keep walking together, good friends are hard to find.
- Be suspicious of…cliche’s, religious platitudes, shibboleths, short cuts to the grieving process, scriptures taken out of context, slogans of any kind, anything that might fit on a bumper sticker or t-shirt, advice from church signs, and so on… Life is usually more complicated than that (and a lot more messy).
- Think deeply. If you are going to speak into tragedy, or any situation, on God’s behalf, do your homework first. There is a reason that James (letter in the New Testament) warns teachers that they will be judged more strictly. That reason is the extreme amount of harm you can cause by representing God poorly or inaccurately. That is not to say that you will ever understand God fully, or that you must fully understand God first. It is to say that there is a body of orthodoxy (right belief) that has been discerned through the ages by thoughtful Christians. Read the scriptures. Delve into historic orthodoxy. Understand your own faith tradition. Try to learn about others. Find a great debate partner as iron sharpen iron. WRESTLE with the texts. Whatever it takes. Just don’t say things about God glibly or flippantly.
- Grieve. Often times those of us bent on helping others forget that we are grieving too. If those close to you are hurting, it’s impossible for you not to be hurting too. Deal with your own grief. Don’t use “helping others” as a denial strategy for your own process.
- Love first, last and in between. enough said.
One final word that applies to everything above. There are professional grief counselors. It’s important to know when you or someone you care about is drowning. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help! It’s available.