Susan did not need her friends the first time her husband developed lymphoma. All he had was a lump in his neck without any symptoms. The testing went smoothly, the chemotherapy was well tolerated especially with the newly available anti-nausea medications, and he returned to work within weeks of completing treatments. With the excellent prognosis, Susan felt relieved and confident.
The second time was different. Susan’s husband had fevers and weight loss, the testing was exhausting, the chemotherapy made him sick despite multiple anti-nausea medications, and returning to work was not even discussed. In addition, Susan had to cope with a very uncertain future for her husband. She needed the support of her friends, and told me in the office she looked forward to the visits of her two closest friends. They were both members of her church and she knew they would be expressing the love of God to her.
At her husband’s next appointment, I asked Susan how the visits went with her friends.
She said, “I couldn’t wait for one friend to leave and I didn’t want the other friend to leave.”
I was puzzled because both of her friends had so much in common with her. What made the difference? Susan said that one friend spent the entire visit talking, trying to figure out why Susan’s husband became sick and to encourage her that he would get better no matter what the doctors had said. Susan was exhausted when this friend left.
Her other friend hardly said a word, let Susan vent about her husband’s illness, and held her hand while she cried. Susan felt great comfort with this friend’s visit.
Susan’s experience with her friends made me reflect on the narrative in the Biblical book of Job, a personal experience that occurred more than 4,000 years ago. It is a book filled with profound yet practical lessons about pain and suffering. After losing all his children to a storm, all his possessions to marauders, and then his own health, Job is visited by close friends who “met together by agreement to go and sympathize with and comfort him” (Job 2:11).
When they arrived, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). Then they listened to a long lament from Job about his circumstances and condition.
All went well until Job’s friends started talking. For 33 long, tedious chapters of the book of Job, his friends ranted about what they thought produced Job’s troubles. They accused him of gross sins that caused his illness. They said that by changing his ways and confessing his wrongdoings, he would be healed and his possessions restored.
The reader knows from the first chapters of the book that none of the long-winded explanations his friends postulated had anything to do with the origin of Job’s miseries.
What was Job’s opinion of his friend’s musings of his condition? “Miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-minded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on talking?” (Job 16: 2-3).
And to his friends’ speculation regarding Job’s future? “These men turn night into day; in the face of darkness they say, ‘Light is near.’ ” (Job 17: 12).
So how are we to comfort others in distress using the ancient example of Job and today’s example of Susan? Interviews with those coping with a loved one’s distress have shown that both Job and Susan needed the presence of friends – showing up but not necessarily speaking up.
Being there and doing what is practical are what the bereaving desire. Bringing over a casserole, taking out the garbage, washing a car, and taking the kids to school are helpful. Wan dissertations on the origin of pain and suffering are not.
Continuing to visit is imperative. One’s presence is often needed long after family has left. Grieving can last months or years though we may think the individual should be over it. Do not be embarrassed to extend your caring; sorrow has no timetable.
As Mother Teresa said, “Spread the love of God through your life, only use words when necessary.”
When it comes to tending those who are suffering, actions speak louder than words.