As our small group time was coming to a close, each person began sharing their prayer requests, being vulnerable and open in their need for God and His provision. One friend shared about how she was still without a job, having been let go a few months prior. It was weighing heavily on her heart, and she was worried. I wanted to comfort my friend, so I shared with her Matthew 6:26–27: "Consider the birds of the sky: They don't sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you worth more than they? Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying?"
"Don't worry," I said. "God will provide for you." I was hopeful that the truth of God's Word would be an encouragement to her troubled heart. She paused and looked at me. "Well, I can't pay my rent this month so..." Her voice trailed off. I sat before my friend, not knowing what to say. I stammered out a response, saying I was sorry and that I would continue to pray for her.
Though this happened over a decade ago, that day will be forever etched into my memories. I left feeling like a bad friend. I was discouraged but also confused. I shared the truth of God's Word with her. Why didn't it bring comfort to her? We have probably experienced both sides of the situation. Maybe you have been like me, unsure of what to say, so you shared a Bible verse or two or a well-meaning comfort that things will get better. Or maybe you have suffered a loss and heard any number of responses that start with "At least":
"At least you are young. You can keep trying for another baby."
"At least it is not as bad as what I dealt with last year..."
"At least you have your health. It could be worse."
As well-meaning as people might be, their words can often fall short. It addresses the circumstances while neglecting to see the heart of the sufferer. We might avoid those who are suffering out of our own discomfort because we don't know what to say or do. How can we care well for a friend who is suffering or grieving?
Most of the time, a grieving friend does not need advice. They need the ministry of your presence. A friend's presence can be a healing balm to a wounded heart. Be there for your friend without trying to fix the situation. Sitting with those who are suffering can be awkward. If you are unsure of what they want, you can ask them, "Do you want me to sit with you for a little while? Or would you like to be alone?" You can be present for your friend even from afar with your prayers and text messages. Sometimes you don't need to say anything, you just need to be available.
Those who are suffering often cannot communicate what they need. Instead of putting the burden on them to keep you informed, look at some tangible needs you can meet. What would make your friend's life a little bit easier during this time? Groceries, gift cards, babysitting, even paying for a housekeeper are just a few ways you could serve those who are grieving. If she is struggling to spend time with the Lord in this season, text her Scripture, prayers, or encouragements throughout the day. You may even offer to sit and read Scripture aloud. Find simple ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their time of need.
In the weeks and months following a significant event or loss, the condolences eventually slow down, the meals stop being delivered, and the caretakers go on to their normal lives. For those who are suffering, it can feel like an additional loss on top of everything else. Continue to be present for your friend by being intentional. Set timers on your phone to remind you to pray and check in.
Rely on the Holy Spirit
There may be times where you feel helpless in your efforts to love your friend well. It is good to remind ourselves that we are not the Holy Spirit. We can be faithful to love and pray for those who are grieving without stepping into the role of their savior, carrying the burden of responsibility for their healing or happiness. Instead, we can trust that God will use our words and our service to comfort others and glorify Himself.
Grief does not follow a linear formula where it automatically gets easier as time goes on. There are ups and downs, baby steps forward and giant leaps backward. God is sovereign over grief and suffering. Stepping down from heaven and putting on human flesh, Jesus walked this earth and experienced tremendous suffering as a result. The suffering your friend is walking through might be unfamiliar to you, but it is fully known by the Lord. He knows what it is like to experience pain in a broken world. He knows our sorrows and sees our tears (Psalm 56:8). At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is trust in God to do the work that only He can do.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
For more on this topic, check out the Daily Grace podcast episode 75 on this topic titled Walking with Others Through Suffering and Grief.