As many of you know, on April 29th, 1993 my husband was murdered while translating the Bible in Papua New Guinea, and my life changed forever. In the days, weeks and months after his sudden death I received many, many sympathy cards and letters. I have hundreds and hundreds, but I’ve never counted them. However, I have counted on them many times since that tragic day. I go back through them even now, marveling at the things people said, the verses they quoted.
One of my friends wrote “I hope we can pick apples together some day.” There was nothing special about this, except that it was so simple, so normal, and spoke about the future. It was a little promise that things would not always be like they were after Edmund’s death.
Another special thing I remember was when someone shared a memory about Edmund, something they fondly recalled about him, a good memory from before the tragedy. “We are glad you and Edmund came to our wedding reception. Now we are doubly grateful because both of you are in our pictures.” They were thankful they had been able to see him not long before he was taken from us.
Another friend of mine, who had been sick not too long before, wrote me just after Edmund died. She said “you wrote me a very encouraging card when you heard I was ill. Now it’s my turn to be an encouraging member of the body of Christ seeking to comfort you.” Even today, when I read that, I can feel her honesty and love.
These letters are a lesson in how to approach someone grieving or in loss. Simple thoughts, honest and real, were very powerful, as were tangible promises that there was a future for me, like picking apples. Of course, there are bad things you can say as well. Generalized platitudes and “fix it all” phrases don’t help. In this specific case I’ll cite Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good.” When the world seems to have turned ugly and evil, this kind of statement is just insulting and confusing.
Don’t tell someone that’s grieving that God never gives you a burden too big to handle. Of course He does! Nobody can handle the sudden death of a spouse without some kind of outside help. At some point in that process they will be overwhelmed – trust me, I know – and then how do you think they feel about your promise? The loss of a loved one is so powerful, so overwhelming, that we need to cling to God for strength precisely because it is more than we can handle.
A much better way to help someone suffering like this is to tell them there is a tomorrow, it will be just slightly less awful than today, and that you’ll be there at lunch with some food, or to do their laundry. Don’t give them these bland and banal promises. Give them honest words, honest feelings, and honest displays of love. And don’t be afraid of confronting death when someone else is suffering. If they’ve suffered a loss, be the friend that reaches out, in spite of your personal fears or issues.
You can’t fully absorb everything people say after a tragedy of this magnitude, but later you are able to slowly draw it all in. I found that out as weeks turned to months and months turned to years. I would return to my basket of letters, my scrapbook of sorrow, often, and trace the loving words with my fingers. They were a powerful tool for my healing. Remember that when you’re not sure about sending a sympathy card. Send it! But just be honest.
I don’t know what the whole sympathy card process will look like now in the 21st century, but I hope people are still sending physical letters. There is something about a physical letter that is more powerful than a sympathy email or tweet or Facebook post. Believe me, when the cards were pouring in, and at times there were dozens of cards arriving each day, I could feel that the entire world was grieving with me. And of course it should be grieving with you. The death of any one person is a terrible loss, even if it is totally natural. But being able to feel that weight of love, that weight of a grief shared with many friends, was uplifting to me. I wasn’t alone after all.
Our words fail, but if we keep God’s love in our hearts and we point people to His word, there we will eventually find peace.