What to do when someone else’s world feels like it is falling apart

bear with me

One of the greatest privileges in life is to be with people in the moments when their world feels like it is falling apart. Simply by you being present reassures people that they are still loved despite what has happened. They don’t need many words or answers to questions. They don’t need flowers or cards. They don’t need much beyond being loved (and perhaps practical things like a cuppa). All of us could do that couldn’t we?

numerically speaking

It feels like we are being inundated with bad news in the form of numbers at the moment. Tragic events are measured in the number of deaths and injured people. The aggression of a country or organisation or faction is measured by how many of their enemies they kill or maim. The culpability of countries and organisations and factions and people is quantified by how many innocent people have died at their hands.

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Please don’t get me wrong. I am deeply moved and concerned by what I see and hear at the moment – aircraft shot out of the sky; rockets fired indiscriminately; artillery fire aimed at residential districts; summary executions of opponents; civil wars and rebellions; humans sold as slaves and treated like expendable commodities; Ebola outbreaks… and in all of them thousands of people have died and many more are under threat.

But the numbers of casualties that are assailing our senses and emotions do not tell us the whole story. The number of deaths tells us the scale of a tragedy, not the depth. The depth is measured in the faces of individuals who grieve and mourn the death of individuals. It is measured in the anguish and anger of those who are victims. The depth is immeasurably beyond words.

And the depth is the same no matter how many have died. Where there is conflict we are told how many have died on each ‘side’. But this is not a numbers game. This is not like the score in a sports match where the one who kills most people is the winner. Death is always a tragedy regardless of how many people it claims. When it strikes violently it always leaves behind pain, grief, anguish, loss and emptiness. And that hurts for every widow, widower, orphan and bereft person. The emotional trauma is always too deep to measure.

Contrary to popular parodies I believe that God is not remote and aloof from all of this. When his created ones are returned to him in pieces, or are vapourised, or have wounds that proved fatal, or fail to recover from contagious illness: he weeps. It breaks his heart. He shares and feels our pain. He experiences the loss.

Yes we can look at the cross on which Jesus was crucified and speak of the Father’s loss and the desolate accusation: “Why have you abandoned me?”

Yes we can look at the garden tomb and say that God knows bereavement.

But there’s more than that. He knows how we are feeling. Surely that means that he weeps with those who weep. He experiences the anguish of a mother who knows that her son is not coming home again; the desolation of a child who has suddenly become an orphan; the all-consuming crying that sobs when the tears are exhausted.

And he is simply and profoundly and silently with us. The Loving One does not seek to offer explanations or justify his existence in the face of suffering, inhumanity and death. He is simply and profoundly and silently with us – loving us, listening to us, rocking back and forth with us…

There are answers and explanations. But the time for them is not when emotions are raw and the pain is fresh. This is the time for presence.

And he calls us, human beings, to be there too.

Blessed are the peace makers – may there be lasting, just, honest God-peace.

Blessed are the protesters – may theirs be God’s voice to be heard and listened to.

Blessed are the comforters – may God’s presence be experienced through them.

Blessed are the pray-ers – may they articulate God’s heart.

Blessed are those who mourn – how will they be comforted?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

words fail me

candleThat is perhaps not the most optimistic title for a word-based bloggage!

But there are times when words do fail us. They can fail us when we are overwhelmed – by awe, by joy, by generosity, by tragedy and by grief – by emotions that are more powerful than words can express.

In the tragic circumstances of Peaches Geldof’s unexpected death her father Bob poignantly described the family as being “beyond pain” following the news*. I think I can understand what he is saying. I think it is a ‘words fail me’ moment.

So what do we do when words fail us?

First of all I think we should give up trying to find the words. Let the silence speak.

Secondly I think we should embrace the emotion. Accept that this is how we feel.

Thirdly I think we should take time. Don’t feel the need to hurry to words.

Fourthly I think we should find those who will sit with us and not feel the need to impose words on us either. People who can embrace the previous three concepts, people who will not feel awkward with silence.

The book of Job in the Bible helps us to explore how to respond in tragic circumstances. It teaches us what not to do: Job’s friends try to explain, rationalise, and apportion blame for all that has happened. And it teaches us what we can do – this is from the end of Job 2:

11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathise with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

We need people who will sit with us in our circumstances. Friends and family who will simply accompany us while we are unable to articulate our emotions. People who will weep when we weep and rejoice when we rejoice.

Let’s not assume that words are always the answer. Let’s not assume that we have to offer an explanation for everything. Let’s not assume that someone is asking the questions we have. Let’s not assume that God only inhabits words – he is also present in silence, in hugs, in tears, in companionship… in us.

When words fail, let our actions speak louder than words.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Pray for grieving families: especially those forced to conduct their grieving in the glare of public interest. You don’t have to use words.