Many, many different responses of love and support have we received in the process of Nathanael’s gestation and stillbirth. Some have been so inspiring. Others have been encouraging. Some were nice just as an acknowledgement. Others, still, chose to give us advice. This is some advice from a pastor and his wife who counsel and pastorally care for people grieving many types of loss.
Let me first say this:
Whoever does the listening does the ministering.
Whoever listens earns the right to speak.
Audit yourself. Are you a listener? Are you an active listener? Do you enquire with genuine selflessness into the grieving person’s world? Do you cherish a vulnerable person’s safety enough to protect them?
Only when we have listened first to understand the situation from the grieving person’s viewpoint do we then, perhaps, have license to speak words of wisdom into their life. Even then I say perhaps, because a vast majority of time true loving support and care is wordless and silent.
The minister is a listener. When the grieving person wants advice they’ll ask for it.
Sometimes there is a moment when the listener might get to share their experience where it’s appropriate, but those who have the pastoral heart are quick to sense the sharing window is tiny. They understand it’s not about them. People who share too much make it about them. It’s worse than a waste of time spending time with self-absorbed ‘experts’ when you’re hurting – like the clichés that were told to my parents by the town minister when they lost my sister. It proved not only a waste of time, it turned my father off God at a time when he was perhaps most reachable.
The Grieving Need Encouragement
Personally, I need less advice and ‘help’ than I need encouragement to keep going.
I think this is the case for most people. Most people need to be heard, understood, and then encouraged. And that is empowering. Rather than say, “Staying strong will get you through,” or, slightly better, “You’re strong enough to get through this,” it is much better to observe the strength already on display by saying, “I think you’re so strong for coping so well – keep it up.”
Advice has a telling feature about it. Listening and asking questions for clarity, on the other hand, demonstrate an other-centredness crucial in anyone helping a grieving person. Clichés, which are woefully timed generalisations of truth, are worse than a waste of time – they can create real harm.
We should never say to somebody in grips of grief, “Something good will come of this, you’ll see.” It makes the advice-giver sound superior when they really have no idea. The fact they are stooping to the use of cliché is a direct indicator that they are sorely out of touch with the situation; they are not a blessing! Let the grieving person find out for themselves that something good comes out of pain. That’s just the dignifying thing to do.
Should we want anything less than to protect and nurture a vulnerable person’s dignity?
© 2014 S. J. Wickham.