how to sit with those in sorrow

I’ve been camped out in Job lately.

When you get to chapter 2 in the story, you meet three of Job’s friends. You really think you’re about to enter into this sweet encounter when you read about how they all got together and decided to visit poor Job. At this point, Job has lost his children, he has these awful sores all over his whole body, and his wife has said to him (no lie or exaggeration): Curse God and die. Gosh, I’m sure that lady was a real bucket of fun in marriage.

So the three friends show Job comfort and sympathy while he’s at rock-bottom. They do a few things right: they show up for Job during his suffering. They mourn and sit with him. They’re present and this matters. This cannot be discounted.

However, it isn’t long before each of Job’s friends begin laying into him about what he has likely done wrong and what he needs to do in order to relieve the suffering he’s experiencing. They come at him like self-help gurus, as if they know his trials better than he does.

This is a blaring warning sign for all of us: we cannot play God or assume we have all the answers for someone in the time of suffering. That’s not our job. That’s not our role.

I can tell you from experience that it is incredibly hard to sit with someone in the waiting. It is hard to sit with someone when things don’t make sense or when the darkness seems endless.

I’ve done it all wrong at certain points in my life. I’ve been the girl who thinks everything can be solved with a few good goals and a massive checklist. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve tried to talk away the darkness with my own stories. It really wasn’t until I walked through some impossible darkness myself that I realized human words fail all the time and people—though we get to be many beautiful things in this lifetime— were never designed to be lifeboats.

I get a lot of emails from people who want to know how to stand beside a friend who deals with mental illness. Whether that is anxiety, depression, or something else, walking with someone who struggles with a mental illness can be challenging. And there isn’t one good answer but I’ve got a few for being with anyone in the dark:

Sit with the person: that’s it. Just show up. Listen when they feel like talking. Nod your head and be present. There are so many terrible things in the world that no amount of words or advice will ever fix. In the midst of deep pain, we don’t always need our friends to become doctors. We simply need people who will sit in the questions with us and wait on God.

Be okay with not understanding all of it: Your friend might say some negative and hopeless things during this time. It can be frustrating. The best thing I can tell you is to become okay with not understanding the view from where they are standing. To them things feel darker. Things feel hopeless. To people who have depression, it often feels like your mind is a small prison with no windows, doors, or natural light. It is much harder to muster up the energy to just be grateful or just praise God. Words don't act like balm for very long. Our thoughts take us down and they take us to a depth inside of us that we hoped was not possible. You don't have to experience this (and I hope you never do). You don't even have to fully understand it. You just tell yourself, "this is very real to my friend. I don't see it but I acknowledge all the things she's telling me." Listen. Nod your head. Validate and encourage. Speak light and love over them and remind them, "the darkness does not get to win here.”

Go to your knees: I think sometimes prayer can be the most underrated tool in the tool belt when someone we love begins to suffer. You can go to your knees for someone. You can petition for them. You can get alone with God and go to battle. I recommend checking out Matthew 6 if you ever want more instruction on prayer. God makes it all sorts of clear: you don’t need to pray the loudest prayers in the room. You don’t need to make a big statement. Our quietest actions can reap the loudest results. Just be a person dedicated to prayer in secret. You don’t even have to say to the person, “I am continually praying for you.” Better yet, don’t say you’re praying at all if you never stop to utter that person’s name up to God. Prayer is powerful but prayer is more than the sentiment, “I’m praying for you.” It’s knees sunk deep in the carpet and ugly sobs. It’s going to battle in the spirit world when the reality doesn’t make much sense.

Avoid giving advice: Unless your advice is full of encouragement, steer clear of trying to tell someone why the suffering is happening. Sometimes it is even damaging to say to a person, “God has a purpose for this.” Undoubtedly, he does but we may never see it in this lifetime. It’s okay to say to someone, “I don’t know why this happened. I’m not sure.” God won’t be phased by that. We are allowed to be honest. We are allowed to express groans within our deepest sorrows.

Life is hard. Maybe your battles have been small so far but there will be bigger trials. This life is far from perfect and really good people are maimed all the time. It doesn’t make sense and it may never make sense. I have to tell myself that making sense of everything isn’t the point. I am not here on this planet to be a puzzle master or to find all the answers to the deepest questions. I am here to be a light. I am here to be a helper. I am hopefully going to leave this planet better than how I found it.

My job isn’t to give all the best answers. It’s not to go to my friends and tell them to go over it or snap out of it. Maybe sitting with someone makes you feel helpless, makes you feel useless, but I can promise that people in the face of grief and confusion sometimes just need someone to sit in the crap with them and not try to fix anything.

Some things won’t be fixed this side of heaven. Some holes in our hearts will remain unfilled and bottomless. That’s okay. Really. Keep saying your prayers. Keep fighting to notice the miracles. Keep sitting with those in sorrow. It all adds up. It all means something.

Hannah Brencher

Hannah is author of the book Come Matter Here and founder of More Love Letters. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband Lane.    

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