Unexpectedly over the last few months, I’ve gained deeper understanding of the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I’ve known with my head that there will one day be a final fulfillment of this teaching of Jesus, where all those believers that have experienced grief and loss will find a peace and comfort that satisfies. But I’ve come to know with my heart that there is a comfort to be found even on this side of heaven. Because, unexpectedly, my mother passed from this world last January, and at the time I couldn’t have imagined how someone could be blessed in mourning.
Mom had several health issues stretching back 20 years, resulting in a weakened heart that stopped beating on January 12th of this past year. Knowing that there was a possibility that her health would fail did very little to cushion the blow when it finally did. My family gathered, we grieved together, and, perhaps foolishly, I then tried to return to the normal routine of my life. Thankfully, I have friends that interrupted that routine, acknowledged my loss along with me, and helped me to mourn well by giving me three gifts. These three gifts helped me more than I could have imagined, and my desire is that they will help you provide comfort to your friends when they experience loss.
Gift #1: Prayers
In the hours, days, and weeks after my mother’s passing, I was surrounded by prayer. Text messages, phone calls, and social media posts flooded in from friends from every part of my life. Some prayers were left as voicemail messages that I could replay from time to time, and some were photocopied from liturgy books that I could reread. Prayers for strength. Prayers for comfort. Prayers for peace. Prayers for me. Prayers for my family. And I didn’t grow tired of hearing from my Christian brothers and sisters asking the Father for these things for on my behalf.
In the few times that I had tried to take on the role of a comforter, I would hesitate to reach out to the person, opting to say a quiet prayer to myself rather than bother them in a difficult time. I see now that I was mistaken. The knowledge that the body of Christ is lifting you up in prayer, even if it can sometimes be awkward, is a heartfelt and humbling reminder of Christ’s perfect love for us while we are in the midst of tragedy.
Gift #2: Presence
In the weeks after my loss, there were times that I wanted to withdraw from the world and just be alone. When I cancelled social plans during this time, it was never because I didn’t want to be around my friends, because I did, but rather it stemmed from my lack of emotional energy. I felt like I couldn’t keep up my end of the conversations because there just were no reserves in the tank. And it was in those times that I was grateful for friends who would just be present.
In the spirit of presence, I have a friend that simply invited himself into my office, took up a corner, and read a book. And I was grateful. Another friend invited me to sit with him at a bonfire in his backyard. And I was grateful. Other friends joined me at a lunch table at work, offering the occasional closed question about my mom so I could talk as much or as little as I wanted. And I was grateful. A couple living halfway across the country would join my wife and me for a Zoom session in our kitchens, where we cooked and ate a meal together despite the different time zones. And I’m still grateful.
In the book of Job, when Job experiences the loss of his children (and his health), it’s recorded that his three friends came and sat with him for seven days and seven nights.
The Jewish mourning traditions related to sitting shivah (seven) are tied to this biblical event, and there seems to be a lot of wisdom to be found in the ministry of presence.
Many of my friends are theologians, preachers, and scholars. They’ve studied their whole lives and if anyone has the right thing to say to someone in mourning, it would be them. But instead of quoting Elisabeth Kubler-Ross or offering me a proverb, they sat with me because that’s what I needed in those moments when the pain was still fresh.
I feel I must include a disclaimer for this point. There are certainly times where it is appropriate to be alone, and even Jesus withdrew from crowds to the lonely places so he could be alone and pray. But aloneness in mourning can deepen depression and make it harder and harder to reengage with the world, so it must be dealt with lovingly.
Gift #3: Physical Memorials
When I made the trek back from my hometown, there was a potted plant waiting for me upon my return. At first, I must admit that I sort of despised it. It did have a nice note attached, expressing condolences for my loss, but neither the note nor the sender had anything to do with why I didn’t like the plant. In the first few weeks after my mother’s death, that plant was one of the few physical reminders I had around my house of my loss.
Other family members continued to live in her house, visit restaurants where meals were shared with her, and could find reminders of her everywhere they looked. Two hundred miles away, I had a few photographs, some hand-me-down pieces of furniture, and now, this potted plant.
A cactus may have been more fitting, at least in the early days, because of the occasional pin pricks it would deliver, reminding me of the reality of my loss.
The plant is one of the last things I see when I leave my house and one of the first when I come home, and because of this, over time, it forced me to deal with my loss just a little bit each day, even on days where I wanted it far from my mind.
Scripture is littered with seemingly mundane reminders of important events, from feasts, to festivals, to stacks of stones. These objects provide opportunities for remembrance, a time to look back over what has happened and acknowledge God’s activity in an event.
Maybe you don’t want to turn your grieving friend’s house into an arboretum, especially if others have already given them this sort of reminder. But with a little creativity, I’m sure you can think of another simple gift to serve as a reminder of the loss, but also of God’s enduring love during this difficult time of life.
I write this as a thank you to my dear friends who helped me this past year, but also as an encouragement to others to step out and provide similar comfort to those experiencing tragedy. Asking the grieving what you can do to help is rarely helpful and often puts responsibility back on those already in crisis, but these few gifts cost next to nothing and were invaluable to me. It was the community of Christian men and women, surrounding and comforting me in my mourning with these simple things. Through them, I was blessed.