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Comforting the Pained

May 9, 2009 | by Liba Pearson

What is the right thing to say to someone in deep pain? Jewish insights into comforting those who need it most.

Click for PDF of Practical Guide to Jewish Mourning

"I didn't know what to say," my friend wrote, "so I didn't say anything."

The day before, I had written to ask: was I was being paranoid or had she been pulling away from me? I had been going through what was possibly the most painful period of my life (thus far), and my friend – a devoted, loyal, loving, supportive friend – had all but disappeared.

For years, we didn't go more than a few days without an e-mail or phone call between us – hers always bubbling over with warmth, humor and love. And then – poof! – she was gone, hidden behind a veil of silence. At the time I needed her closeness and support the most, she was gone.

"I just knew how much you were hurting," she wrote in sincere apology, "but I didn't know what to do."

I didn't get it.

My friend is a good person and deeply caring friend. So isn't when someone is hurting the most important time to be a friend?

Yet it's a very human reaction to do the opposite: to pull away. Not because you don't care, but because you simply don't know what to do.

Giving in to your fear of what to say is an abdication of responsibility.

Giving in to fear of "what to say" or "what to do" is certainly more comfortable in the short term, but, says Judaism, it is an abdication of the human obligation to comfort those in pain.

Even God Himself comforted Isaac after his father's death. Easy for Him, right? After all, God knows what to say!

Worry not: Jewish tradition gives guidelines for how to comfort those who have suffered a loss. Not just mourners who have suffered the death of a loved one, but also the end of a close relationship, the loss of a job, or any of the other myriad slings and arrows that make life the oh-so-interesting learning experience that it is.

Pay a Call

First and foremost, reach out.

Resist the urge to avoid the sticky, uncomfortable goo that is someone else's pain. The sense of isolation and loneliness that accompany any serious loss can be crushing. You are needed.

In the case of a mourner, we go to the home where the person is sitting shiva. No one likes paying "shiva calls," but we recognize the obligation to relieve mourners of the unspeakable loneliness that accompanies their loss.

In the simple act of reaching out to someone in pain, you ease the burden. You counteract his aloneness by simply being there.

Depending on circumstances, you may want to take your friend for dinner, get her out to a movie, or meet him for coffee. But it doesn't even have to be that much.

Call. Leave a message saying, "You're on my mind." Or send a card or e-mail, saying, "Just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you and hope you're feeling okay."

You can't take the loss away, but you can make your friend feel less alone.

Let Them Talk

Of course, once you plan to visit, you think, in a panic, "What am I supposed to say??"

There's good cause for this: plenty of us would tend to say something stupid.

Jewish tradition helpfully instructs: Don't speak to mourners until they speak to you first. You let them speak if they want, or you merely comfort them with your presence. You let them set the tone and pace. You resist the urge to fill the silence with your words.

Apply that to other painful scenarios. After all, what do you say to someone who just lost their job? Or who is going through a divorce? Or who is battling a disease?

Don't worry about what to say. Just listen.

Most of us aren't sagacious rabbis or psychologists who can offer just the right words to our pained friends. But you can lend an ear, or a shoulder, or offer a hug. And that's frequently enough.

Word to the wise: don't force someone to open up to you. It's a wonderful thing to say, "If you want to talk, I am here." It's less helpful to call up and say, "You had a miscarriage? How terrible! C'mon, talk about it. You'll feel better."

Everyone wants and needs different things for comfort. One person may want you to listen to her cry. Another may want you to cheer her up.

Give What They Need

What you might need in their situation may be totally different than what she needs. Have enough humility to realize that what you think they need, may not be in fact what they do need.

The tough talk, buck-it-up speech that seems to make so much sense to you might be absolutely devastating to someone in a fragile place.

Try asking what he needs from you: "How can I support you?" "What can I do to help you?" "What would you like from me now?" It may be running an errand, helping with arrangements, or lending a hand around the house.

Respect the Process of Grief

Recognize that the only thing that will "fix" your friend is time.

This is recognized in Jewish law with the separate categories of mourning through which a mourner progresses, spread over a period of a year (for parents). As time passes, the mourning restrictions ease and the mourners slowly rejoin society.

Progressing through any grief process involves inevitable ups and downs. Your friend may be totally fine today and devastated tomorrow, calm one hour and hopeless the next.

Know Perspective

Try to be patient, even when you're thinking, "How long is he going to wallow already?" or "How many times am I going to hear about this again?" It's easy to sum up someone else's pain when you have the perspective he lacks. You're not going through it.

At the same time, Jewish tradition cautions against excessive grieving. If someone cannot move past his or her pain, he may need help. If you think this applies to your friend, speak to a counselor or rabbi to help you evaluate the situation.

You might gently suggest that your friend perhaps speak to someone trained in dealing with grief, to help her feel better and gain perspective on the situation.

You Do Have the Time?

About mid-way through my (teary) plodding toward equilibrium, I spoke about the ways people had responded with another friend who'd gone through a similar experience.

I knew that I had developed life-long loyalty to three or four friends who had been unfailingly kind, patient and loving as I slogged my way back to normalcy.

What did they do?

Not much. They called. They made sure to invite me places. One of them bought me a goofy hat on a day I was particularly down.

They made sure I knew that I was on their mind.

Basically, they made an extra effort. They made it part of their consciousness that I was going through something and they made sure I knew that I was on their minds.

My friend told me bitterly that her feelings had changed toward friends who hadn't bothered to contact her.

Thinking of my well-intentioned but bewildered friend, I reminded her that people have their own lives and may get so caught up in their own day-to-day that they just forget to call, or don't know what to say. It's not that they don't love her.

"You're right," she replied, sadly. "But I am not asking for them to give me big block of time, or to single-handedly carry my burden. I am asking for a 3-minute phone call. Or an email that takes 30 seconds to write and send."

The Torah tells us "not to oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." It's easy to rest on the self-satisfied laurels of the wronged. The ultimate challenge is to harness our pain and learn from it.

When this friend and I are past our challenges and back to feeling "normal," will we remember the incredible preciousness of that phone call or e-mail? When someone else is in pain, will we be able to be more patient? Perhaps it is for this reason that I have gone through my own pain.

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