My experience has been that some of life’s most difficult moments come when we are searching for the “right” or “correct” words to speak to those who are going through a season of great difficulty. It may be a friend or family member who is mourning the loss of a loved one. A coworker or neighbor who has just heard the doctor share a diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. Whatever the situation we feel compelled to say something. When the moment comes there are no words, or what we speak sounds hollow or empty. A couple of experiences like that and we become experts at avoiding situations where we might have to speak to someone who is grieving or going through a difficult time. We see them across the room and head out the side door…simply to avoid what we see as an awkward conversation. It is human. It is reality. We are not alone as we have those feelings…yet for the sake of those who are struggling we must learn how to speak words of health, healing and hope.
I remember my first conversation with my brother after my diagnosis. Kevin had been in a car accident, a very serious one, a few years ago. It is a miracle that I can talk to him today. During our talk he said, “Dan, people are going to say some of the dumbest things to you as you walk through this.” I thought it an odd statement. He continued, “People are not going to know what to say and they are going to say things that do not respect the reality and truth of what you are going through and some of their words are going to ring very hollow and empty.” “You are just going to have to smile and go with it.” I thought it was an odd piece of our conversation but his words have rung true.
I do not believe any words spoken are meant to be hurtful or harmful. I do believe it is people who care for me, at different levels, coping with and dealing with the reality of my Cancer in their own way. If you treat it in a casual, “Hey, no big deal, you will walk through this and get better” kind of way you do not have to deal with the very real truth that (unless God does something miraculous…which I pray for daily, and I believe He can do) there is no cure for the Cancer within my body. We will, in the words of my doctor, “prolong and have quality of life”…but ultimately this Cancer is going to win. Treat it in a casual way and we do not have to deal with that reality.
For others it is simply overwhelming. They cannot imagine the journey themselves and so it is best to keep at arm’s length. The easiest way to do that is to speak words that seem to deny the seriousness of what is going on. Yes, it is true there have been advances in technology, in the way the doctors treat Cancer these days. I have laid awake nights thanking God for those advances. I am painfully aware that if I was in the same situation twenty years ago my outlook would be radically different. Every time I go to the oncologist for chemotherapy I am thankful for the person who dreamed up and designed my port. No needles every time I get chemo. All my bloodwork through the port. It is a great advance in technology and treatment…I am amazed by what it means for me today. Yet the truth is I am facing at least a yearlong battle. Yes, I know, believe, and am praying for God to do the miraculous…but I am also preparing for the fight for my life. For some the seriousness of the journey is enough to scare them away.
Life is busy. There are things to be done, appointments to keep, jobs to be done, games to attend, vacations to be planned and for some focusing on the grief or pain of another is just one more thing that they simply do not have time for. At the core of it we are all very self-centered people. I have struggled with this over the past few weeks. I mean really, who needs, wants, to hear any more about Dan’s Cancer? Every time I finish a post and put it up on Facebook part of me cringes. We can very easily become focused on our own lives, our own experience and we end up turning a blind eye to the reality and suffering of others. Caught up in the “rat race” of life we miss opportunities to simply be present with those who are suffering or grieving because our eyes, ears, heart are focused not on others but on ourselves. Focused on the “to do list” we are not “present in the moment” and say things to move past a God ordained encounter so we can get to our agenda. The words we speak ring hollow and dismissive. People know our attention is focused elsewhere and they leave feeling unloved, uncared for.
Most of us walk away from one of those awkward interactions and within moments we know we have blown it. We know we were not fully engaged in the conversation. We know the words we spoke rang hollow and empty. We hear a voice within our head say, “If someone said that to me…I would not be happy.” Let that happen a few times and we begin to learn how to avoid those in pain and grief. We begin to dread, and overthink our next encounter. I think there is another way, a better way.
When I was in college I took a class which studied the book of Job. We spent the entire semester looking at and reviewing the story of Job. I will confess that when the class began I wondered how in the world Dr. Terry Brensinger was going to stretch this one book for an entire semester. A few months later as the semester came to a close I was wondering why the class was not stretched over two semesters. Dr. Brensinger wrote some words on one of my papers that made its way into my Rule for Life. I was struggling with a desire to be practical and have words that were applicable to daily life and the deep study and theology he was calling us to. I got a paper back and across the top in bright red were these words, “The Bible is worthy of your best effort and thought. I know you want to be practical, but you need the materials to be practical with. Don’t be satisfied with less than your best – and prepare as though your listeners’ lives were in the balance.” I was in my early twenties when I first saw those words. I will be 48 this July and they still come to mind on a regular basis.
One of the things that struck me about the story of Job is the way those closest to him meet him in his season of struggle and difficulty. Job loses everything, everything except his wife, whose words of wisdom and help were, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) It is as if her words are just one more jab at Job’s spiritual strength in the midst of chaos. Who better to bring you down than those closest to you? Job remains strong and in fact seizes the opportunity to call upon his wife to understand relationship with God more clearly. He says, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10) His response is inspiring and encouraging. The reality that in times of turmoil we can be wounded by those closest to us has never left me. It has helped shape the way I respond to those I love the most. It has helped me understand the words of others directed my way in the midst of chaos and turmoil.
The remainder of Job details four conversations. Job with his three friends, and ultimately Job and God. His friends show up to support and encourage their friend who is in a season of turmoil. Scripture says that they, “sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw his pain was great.” (Job 2:13) Afterward Job opens his mouth and laments the reality of his experience. He pours out his heart and you can hear the pain and suffering, the questioning he is experiencing. It is at this point that his friends feel the need to help, they begin to “explain” why Job is experiencing what he is. In Job 13 we hear Job once again. He says, “O that you would be completely silent, and that it would become your wisdom! … Will you speak what is unjust for God, And speak what is deceitful for Him? … Your memorable sayings are proverbs of ashes, Your defenses are defenses of clay.” In other words, you were a much better support to me when you just sat in silence and did not try to explain the work of God nor the world to me.
A few chapters later Job is once again talking about how it feels as if all is against him. Listen to his words…
“He has alienated my family from me; my acquaintances are completely estranged from me. My relatives have gone away; my closest friends have forgotten me. My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner; they look on me as on a stranger. I summon my servant, but he does not answer, though I beg him with my own mouth. My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear, they ridicule me. All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. (Job 19:13-19)
Reading those words there is no denying that Job feels alone, persecuted, abandoned…this is a season of chaos and turmoil for sure. Yet in the midst of it all Job boldly and clearly declares his faith in God.
“And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last he will take His stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)
Regardless of what anyone else says, or does not say. In spite of how I am treated or how people respond to me in the midst of my season of chaos and upheaval… “I know that my Redeemer lives!”
I believe the three friends’ model for us what it looks like to walk well with those who are suffering. When they first meet up with Job they are willing to sit in silence for seven days and seven nights. They feel no need to offer words of comfort or explanation. They are willing to simply be with their friend. What an awesome picture of journeying with someone who is going through a season of suffering. Being present, not trying to “fix” anything, and just letting them know “I am here for you.”
It is okay to be quiet. It okay to be present. It is okay to be normal and to move as if life is continuing on…because it is. It is okay to ask, “How are you feeling today.” It is okay to ask, “How are you experiencing the treatments?” It is good to ask, “Where are you experiencing God in the midst of all this?” It is okay to remember stories of one whom has passed away and to share them with a grieving friend or family member. It keeps their memory alive and helps those left behind know that others miss them, and remember them just like they do.
Words that try to explain the pain, the suffering not so helpful. Words that speak of this being a season that will soon pass by and you will move on with life may be true but are hard to hear because life will never be the same again. Someone who is suffering will ultimately arrive at that understanding on their own, as they journey through their stages of grief and pain…but it is their journey and each journey is unique.
Our challenge is to be present. We must be there to listen. We must be there to comfort. We must be there to meet needs as they arise. We must be there to listen. (Yes, I am aware I put that in there twice)
I am thankful for Job’s story. I am thankful for the example of his friends. They teach us much of what it means to walk well with someone who is suffering.
I am thankful for everyone who has walked so well with me and my family over the past month or so.
May we not shy away from the suffering…may we learn to walk alongside them well.