I’ve written about suffering before. In 2011, “Homeschooling in Crisis” was published in this magazine, in which I detailed my story of homeschooling in the midst of a cancer diagnosis while pregnant with my fifth child. In “Lesson in Affliction,” I told the story of miscarrying a much-wanted baby and nearly dying in the process.
Little did I know that after that article was published, more trouble would quickly follow. Within six months I had miscarried a second baby, my husband was in a multi-car accident, and my oldest child was struggling to recover from the severe trauma of my near death earlier that year.
I was very blessed to have people surround me during this incredibly difficult season of our lives, and I’d like to draw on those experiences to give some ideas on how to help—and how not to help—when a friend passes through the inevitable sorrows that are part of life. I also want to detail some of the unexpected blessings which accompany suffering.
It takes humility to reach out to someone who is suffering. Most of us don’t know what to say and don’t know how to help. I’ve discovered it’s okay not to know. Sometimes I’ve had to reach out knowing I could totally screw up and say or do the exact wrong thing. Though the real possibility of failure is humbling, it is worth the risk to attempt to extend comfort.
A good prayer in situations when I don’t know what to do is, “Lord, show me Your path through this situation.” God gives grace to the humble, and as I go to Him for help, He faithfully gives wisdom.
After seeking help from God, it is also helpful to ask people who have been in similar situations what they found helpful and unhelpful during their time of suffering.
Experience is a Plus, but Caring is Mandatory
Having experienced similar types of suffering is helpful when seeking to minister to others, but it’s not a prerequisite. Although a Christian who has suffered is uniquely equipped to comfort others with the comfort they received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4), all are called to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
One of the most effective people who ministered to me had never miscarried, but she continually let me know she was there for me and she cared about my brokenness. It was her continual availability rather than her ability to directly relate to my circumstances that strengthened and helped me.
What to Say
Job has some advice on how to comfort with words. Job 16:5 states, “But I would strengthen you with my mouth, and the moving of my lips should asswage your grief.”
Job says truly comforting words should do two things: strengthen the man who is suffering and try to assuage (lessen) a suffering person’s grief. These are good guidelines to regulate what to say and what not to say to a person who is suffering. Will my words strengthen this person? Will my words lessen this person’s grief?
I had some people speak incredibly life-giving words to me, and others who were well-meaning but spoke unwisely. A few days after I lost my second baby in 2012 (it was my third miscarriage in eighteen months), I had a person question me about why I was miscarrying. Was it my age? Was it my health? Another related how miscarriage had caused her to decide not to have any more children. These questions and comments echoed all the insecurities in my own broken heart. If these well-meaning people had put their statements and questions through Job’s guidelines, perhaps they would have seen them as inappropriate, because they did not lessen my grief (actually, they increased it), and I was not strengthened through what they said.
It is also a good idea to avoid spiritual platitudes, even ones that are true. Sometimes we want to make everything better, and we think reminding a person of God’s sovereignty and love should do that. But thinking a deep hurt can be easily healed with a few words disrespects the depth of a person’s grief. And while I needed to be reminded that God was good and God was with me in the midst of my suffering, I wanted the person who quoted Romans 8:28 to me to have tears streaming down her face as she did so.
John 11:35 reveals that Jesus wept outside of Lazarus’s tomb. While there is much theological debate about why Jesus wept, surely one reason was to enter into the pain of the grieving people around Him. When I can enter into someone else’s grief and cry with her, then I am in a position to strengthen her with my words.
Sharing in Suffering
Suffering can be very isolating. It’s exhausting. Often at the end of the day, the suffering person is completely empty emotionally, and if health problems are involved, he or she is probably completely spent physically. I think many people shy away from suffering people because they’re nervous they will do or say the wrong thing.
I wrote the following blog post several weeks after the second miscarriage, as I felt very alone in my grief:
Romans 12:15 states Christians are to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and to weep with those who weep. I think as a church we are much better at the first part of this command than the second. Most people enjoy being around people who are happy and are excited to share their good feelings. We’re eager to attend celebrations like weddings and graduations, but who enjoys attending funerals? The world has a saying that confirms this tendency: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.”
Unfortunately, this is too often true of the church as well as the world. Often we endure the sad occasions and try to support the mourners, at least until their mourning interferes with our rejoicing. Any who have walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death will testify that it can be a lonely experience. Grief is isolating, in part because few are willing to voluntarily walk the Valley with one who grieves or even go for a visit with one who currently dwells there . . .
It’s a very selfless act to enter into the sufferings of another. My prayer is I will learn to weep with those who weep and be as willing to do so as I am to rejoice with those who rejoice. Unlike those in the world, no one within the body of Christ should ever have to cry alone.
I experienced a miracle the evening I wrote that post. A family from church showed up unexpectedly on my doorstep. They could tell I was not doing well, and they came to help in any way they could. The next week, the husband made an announcement at church asking people to please remember my family in their prayers, as we’d had a very rough year. That week I received invitations from four women to get together. They all said to me in different ways, “We know you’re not okay. And that’s all right with us. We will walk with you as long as it takes.”
Simply having people come alongside and help carry my load of grief made a huge difference, and I understood the beauty of the body of Christ in a new way. This was the turning point in my broken heart becoming whole again.
Just as there are ways to help spiritually and emotionally, practical physical help can also be a great comfort and ministry to a family passing through a difficult season. It’s important to be very specific in what kind of help you would like to provide. “Call me if you need anything” is often sincerely offered but rarely accepted. “Would you like to drop the kids off Friday night so you and your husband can go on a date?” is a much better offer and much more likely to be accepted.
Providing meals can be a huge help, since shopping for and preparing food takes so much thought, time, and energy. It is always a blessing when the meals come in disposable containers so the family does not need to worry about returning dishes and remembering which dishes belong to whom. There’s a great website called mealtrain.com which allows people to sign up to bring meals and the family to state food preferences. This site is helpful in that it allows everyone bringing a meal to see what everyone else has brought so the family doesn’t have lasagna brought to them five times in one week.
Offering child care can be huge, especially for homeschoolers. I had four children ten and under when I was diagnosed with cancer. In one month, I went to about two dozen medical appointments. It would have been a tremendous help if someone had told me she would watch my kids anytime she was available.
Offering to help with homeschooling can also be a blessing to a suffering family. While dealing with grief or health issues, anything extra tends to fall off a family’s to-do list, so including these children in messy art and history projects can really brighten their homeschool. Offering to include them on field trips can also be a huge help. One of the side effects of my ailments was having no energy, so we did very few field trips for several years.
My family has also helped others through housework. This one can be tricky, as it can be very humbling for the person receiving this help to allow someone else into their mess. But it can also be a huge necessity for someone suffering physically. My daughters and I cleaned house for a person suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for six months while the doctors worked to get her condition under control. She had been an excellent housekeeper until the pain in her joints made it difficult for her to clean. I know it took a huge load off of her to have a clean house.
Since this is a homeschooling magazine, I want to mention God’s faithfulness to our homeschool during these difficult seasons. It’s at times like these a homeschooling family can be tempted to quit, since the parents may not be as available emotionally or physically as they need to be. But I am so glad we continued to homeschool during suffering. We really needed each other, and homeschooling gave us access to each other that was critical for leading everyone through grief.
The uncertainty of my health forced me to give my children independence in their studying so that school could continue in almost all circumstances. My ten-year-old son effectively does his schoolwork the way a college student would. I don’t know if I would have risked this type of independence without suffering necessitating it, but it has been a huge blessing to my family.
My suffering also gave one of my children the space she needed to bloom without Mom hovering over her to make sure it happened. She needed time, and she got that time while I was out of commission. I never would have dreamed when she was eight years old and really struggling with schoolwork that she would become a studious and industrious young woman as a teenager
I’m so thankful for the people who came alongside me in suffering and were willing to cry with me. I remember talking with a friend and trying to express my distress at being grieved for such a long period of time. It seemed like one tragedy followed another, and I was afraid I would wear out my comforters and be left alone. She told me, “Cindy, if you lose another baby, I will cry with you again. But when God blesses you with another child, I want to host the baby shower.” Those words of commitment and hope meant so much to me. And this friend did host that baby shower when God blessed us with our youngest child on September 6, 2013.
Whether it’s learning to say the right thing, being a shoulder to cry on, or helping with food and child care, I pray we will all continue to grow in our abilities to effectively comfort others and weep with those who weep.
Cindy Puhek is learning to follow Jesus in Colorado Springs. She has been married to Peter for more than two decades and is well into her second decade of homeschooling her six children who range in age from toddler to high schooler. Cindy holds a master's degree in chemistry and has written dozens of articles to encourage others in their homeschooling journeys.