One Thanksgiving our ranch was buzzing with activity. Family and friends had gathered to enjoy the beautiful fall weather. Returning from the grocery store with my niece, we saw one of the couples at the turnoff. Waving for us to stop, they told us my husband had been hurt. The ambulance was on the way, and they would show them the way. We hurried to the house, and prayed as we drove.
When we got to the barn, my husband was lying on the ground. I knelt beside him, and he said, "Honey I can't move my arms or legs." I knew he was paralyzed. I was in shock and near tears. They told me he had been pitching hay out of the barn and slipped on the slick hay. In trying to catch himself, he leaned against the barn wall, but the hinged opening was unfastened and he fell through it to the ground below. The eight feet would have knocked the breath out of him, but his head hit a foundation stone and that broke his neck. He died two weeks later.
Until the death of my husband, I had lived without tragedy. Many times I held myself at arm's length when friends were hurting. I would send cards or flowers and assure myself that someone closer to them was comforting them. I asked them to call if they needed me. No one ever called to say they needed me.
Maybe you feel the same way. Here are some suggestions I wish I had been given long ago when heartbreak was a stranger to me.
Visiting is not intruding
My heart went out to friends who were hurting. Because I didn't know what to say, I called or made a "duty" visit and then kept away. They needed someone who understood, I thought, and could comfort them better than I could. I didn't know that just being there was a comfort.
A few years ago my next door neighbor was dying of cancer. I have learned that he would have welcomed a "sit down visit" where we could discuss what was going on in the outside world, his life, and the lives of our families. My friend must have felt alone and forgotten.
I could have helped prepare his children for his death by sharing this Bible verse: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of compassion, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4, NIV)' Unbelievers also need to hear that God loves them and is grieving with them.
Offer practical help
Your suffering friend may be too dysfunctional to know what he or she needs. After my husband's accident, two of my pastors and several of my dearest friends arrived at the hospital intensive care unit. I was so glad to see them. I don't know who called them. We waited together. I called the children, and then a friend took over the phone and called my family and friends. We formed a circle and prayed. One of my friends heard a nurse say, "What a loving family they are!" This can be true in a Christian body.
Many friends brought food. One organized meals and put a book by the phone to record the messages and names of visitors. Because it was damp and rainy, my son went to the store and bought several umbrellas. Another brought a throw rug to put by the door to protect my carpet. After the funeral, one woman took all the envelopes for thank-you notes. She addressed and stamped them for me so I had more time to write the notes.
God showed me His love through the kind acts of my friends.
Isaiah gave me comfort: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.... Since you are precious to me and honored in my sight, and because I love you" (Isa. 43:2-4, NIV).
Use words sparingly
When my father died, we went to mother as soon as possible. She was glad to see us but was yearning to talk with a neighbor whose husband had died a few months earlier. It was a shock to know she was seeking the comfort of a friend over the family, but I came to realize she needed all of us in a different way.
When my daughter-in-law miscarried, I did not understand her pain. Later she told me how much she suffered. She grieved as one would over the death of any child. One person said, "I'm sorry, but you are young and can have other children." This hurt. There will never be another just like the one she lost.
A dear widow understood how I would feel in my empty house. She offered to come spend the night with me for two me 'Whs. We enjoyed each other, and it filled that void. She also helped me with my income tax forms, which I had never done before. God used her in a mighty way.
"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Ps. 147:3, NIV).
Let friends cry on your shoulder
We can't see the "silver lining" when grief overwhelms us. Minimizing the grief makes one feel inadequate. It hurts. We need a friend to listen and empathize with us as we grieve. Perhaps a crisis is not a time to evangelize, but we can share how God has comforted us.
When I was told my husband had died, I started crying. My family put their arms around me, and we cried together. Then we praised God that he was with the Lord and no longer suffering.
What a comfort it was to me when a dear friend searched the Scripture,, for the promises God gives to the widow. My favorite one is, "Do not be afraid; ... for your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name" (Isa. 54:4-5, NW). What a joy to know that He will give me wisdom and guidance and provide for us like a husband.
My sister called me every morning for a long time after the funeral. What a comfort that was. She wanted to know how I was, and let me know she loved me.
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:18, NIV).
Write a letter of condolence
Printed cards are better than nothing, but they do not take the place of a note from the heart. I received many cards. Months later I took the time to go through them again. I read each message and personal note. They were a double comfort to me.
The most meaningful letters were those describing our happy times together or memories we shared. I picked out the ones from people my children knew and kept them to share the next time we were together.
When my father died, we received a letter from a man who had been in Dad's Sunday School class. It blessed all of us. He said Dad, who was a salesman, would stop work about 5:00, and they would go together many evenings to visit his friends or men in the park. He counted 34 men my dad had won to the Lord. It was easy to see that his life had blessed many people.
"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand" (Isa. 41:10, NIV).
Be realistic in your expectations
One of my friends had been nursing her husband for six years before he died. She was exhausted. Soon after the funeral his business collapsed through drcumstances beyond her control. She was faced with almost insurmountable stress because of the business and some misunderstanding among her grown children. Some mornings she could hardly get out of bed. One friend kept trying to get her to go places and do things that were beyond her strength. The friend got mad and fussed at her, causing more pain. It's good to offer invitations, but pushing can hurt a friendship.
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Ps. 34:18, NIV).
Continue to see your friend so-daily
When you are physically and emotionally healed, friends can help. It is lonely to be left out because you are no longer a "couple." Fellowship is particularly important to those suffering from the breaking up of a marriage. One of my friends and I took walks together, giving her an opportunity to unload the hurt and confusion.
Going alone to evening functions was difficult for me. It was also stressful to plan social activities. Often I would yearn to just stay at home and "hibernate." I was fortunate to have some close friends who would ask me to go with them to parties. When I entertain, I try to include singles as well as couples. We need one another.
Recovery takes time
What a comfort it was when one friend, seeing the stress and confusion I was going through, would say to me: "Don't try to push yourself. It takes time. One of these days things will be back to normal, but what you are going through now is OK." She said it to me enough times that I believed her and began to relax.
Unfortunately, the government doesn't give a widow time to grieve. There are so many forms to be filled out. The hospital, doctors, and funeral home all have to be paid. The government requires that the names be changed on everything. A widow has to prove, in writing, everything owned on the day of the death.
Insurance forms go back and forth. I found a widow has to establish a credit rating in her own name. This meant I had to buy things on credit and pay them off before I was accepted in the credit world again. I really learned the meaning of Psalm 55:22: "Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall" (NIV).
Love and listen to your friend
Your caring presence and your willingness to listen are the two most precious gifts you can offer a hurting friend. After my neighbor's husband died, I realized how lonely she was. We drank coffee together. She talked and I listened. One friend "washed my feet" by inviting me to dinner and renting a movie I had been wanting to see. After the movie we sat and shared. I went home with a feeling of being loved.
The people I found most helpful were those who would make no attempt to distract me from my grief, but would encourage me to talk about it. This seemed to make it less frightening each time we went over it. One of my neighbor's daughters refused to accept her father's death or talk about it, and I know there must still be a big lump in her heart that will not melt.
Working your way through a crisis or grief is a long, slow process. There are no shortcuts. However, caring friends can make the path smoother and the curves less frightening. You can be that friend to another. We will all face difficulties at some time in our lives. First Peter 4:12-13 shows how to face it.
From the Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright 1973, 1979, 1984 by International Bible Society. All subsequent quotations will be marked NIV.