Grief, Pain, The Wilderness Journey, Words of Endurance

by Dave Biebel

Once upon a time there lived a young pastor and his lovely family. The pastor and his wife loved each other very much. They were happy in their work and very devoted to their children, Jonathan and Allison.

The path they walked together seemed so good. The future seemed bright and secure. But late in the summer of Jonathan’s fourth year, he got sick—very sick. Five weeks later, the beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy died of an undiagnosed illness…

That’s how I entered the wilderness called heartbreak. It’s a lonely, confusing, scary place. If only I’d had a friend to walk with me on this journey, perhaps I might have made it through in less than 15 years.

If you have a friend who is where I once was and you want to help, let me say two things. First, God bless you for caring. If you didn’t care, nothing you could say or do would be very helpful. Second, be assured that you can help and that your help makes a difference. Now let me suggest three ways in which you can walk with a hurting friend.

Your friend needs to know that she’s not alone because you are, and will be, with her. Your friend needs to know that you won’t abandon her—no matter how long it takes, how deep it gets, or how well she follows the expectations of “good grieving.”

From many others she will receive mostly words; from you, she will receive yourself, a companion who will sit in the dark and share her pain, perhaps without saying a word. Spoken words are seldom remembered, but the person who came, who stayed, who wept, who cared is never forgotten.

For most people, the wilderness of heartbreak is uncharted territory—a confusing place without roads, maps, or compass. Few guides really know the way through this wilderness, although many think they do. Those who think they know rush in, offer their pat answers and pious platitudes, answer questions that no one is asking, and leave, smugly assured that they have fulfilled their duty.

True listening, in contrast, involves learning to ask questions, not necessarily to answer them. Ask questions that encourage your friend to delve deeper, discover, face, and perhaps resolve the real issue. Through this process, your friend may express questions or doubts that seem out of character. Even a deeply religious person may express great anger at God, and the intensity with which that anger is expressed may shock you.

If this level of truthful but raw communication occurs, don’t judge your friend, regardless of how uncomfortable you feel at the moment. Take a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry you are feeling such deep pain. These feelings are confusing and hard for us to express. Thank you for trusting me enough to show me what is inside your soul. By sharing this, you have given me a very special gift.” When you validate your friend’s pain, you may be surprised by what she says next.

When given the opportunity, your friend may express her true feelings. Those feelings—whether fear, anger, doubt, or guilt—are an open door to your friend’s heart. It’s important that you accept, not deny, those feelings. Only then can you step through the open door to touch your friend’s hurting heart.

For me, guilt was the open door. I felt responsible for Jonathan’s death, and nothing anyone said could change that. Logically, I knew I wasn’t responsible, but logic didn’t matter because the guilt was in my heart. If someone had simply accepted and validated that guilt for what it was, that person would have touched my heart.

Many people who are sick, for example, express concern that they are a burden to others. They give their family and friends this open door, but instead of walking through it, family and friends often deny the truth. “Oh, no,” they say, “you’re not a burden.” A better response would be, “Yes, this disease is a burden, but it is a burden I freely choose to bear because I love you.”

A sorrow shared is a sorrow diminished. The way to truly share another’s sorrow and thus to diminish it is to love that person. It sounds simple, but love is life’s most difficult—and rewarding—task. If you ask for His help, God can and will give you the love and strength you need to walk with a friend in the wilderness.

Dave Biebel is an ordained minister, speaker, and author of numerous books including Jonathan, You Left Too Soon; If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad?; and How to Help a Heartbroken Friend. To order Dave’s books, visit your local Christian bookstore or write to Liberty.