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Gratitude, Platitudes, Bad Advice and the Suffering Soul

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When I was suffering through the deepest darkest depression I was encouraged to make a gratitude list.  A few people asked me if I was counting my blessings and if I was even grateful for the gifts God has given me. So, in an effort to “do more, try harder” to end my depression, I made a gratitude list and counted my blessings. The depression did not cease.

I was also prodded to look around and see others whose suffering was way worse than my own. I looked around and saw that there were people struggling with visible physical ailments, family issues, unemployment, and financial crises. The depression and insomnia I was going through, other than the sunken eyes surrounded by black circles, the extreme weight loss, the constant panic attacks, dry skin and graying hair, all joy and laughter erased from my countenance, manifested in ways people could not see. No, what I was going through, as evidenced by the platitudes and advice I received, was seen by people both inside and outside the church as something that I could snap my way out of, pray my way out of, count blessings out of, medicate my way out of, exercise my way out of, therapy my way out of, confess every sin I ever committed my way out of, de-clutter my way out of, “church” my way out of, positive think my way out of, and the list goes on and on.

Just to set the record straight, I have been guilty of delving out platitudes, untimely scriptures, bad advice, and to-do lists when really what the hurting person needed was a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and the good news.

My friend Christyn, whose family has suffered in ways I could not imagine, taught a wonderful Bible study on the Book of Job in 2013. She shared her journal pages with the class and on the class website. Here is one of her lessons that profoundly spoke to me:

What Not To Say

Audio: What Not to Say 

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”  Henri Nouwen

When I grow up I want to write a book – and that book will be titled, “What Not to Say.”  The purpose for the book would not be to shame any unwilling characters from its pages, but rather to give clarifications of words which are most helpful and most harmful during our intimate struggles.  I am ashamed to admit that in my pre-trial, unempathetic life, I was the number one offender in my actions toward those in crises.  I desperately needed a guide to provide insight into this mine-filled path.  I would regularly repeat the dreaded phrases those in pain hope to never hear such as, “Don’t worry, you will be just fine, God will provide”, or “God won’t give you anything more than you can handle”.  I wish I could go back in time and glue my mouth shut – especially now that I realize first-hand the hurt my well-intended words caused those I loved.

Job’s friends were well-intended as well, they “met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job2:11).  At least they showed up.  Notice, during all of Job’s afflictions, this well-respected government official was visited by only four friends.  Only four.  While most of his friends bailed – these four cared enough to be there when Job’s world fell apart.

As the friends saw the virtually unrecognizable Job, they were kind and compassionate as “they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then 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 2:12-13).  They saw their friend in pain and they suffered with him.  There is a lot to be said about friends who “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).   Good friends, right?  And they were – attentive, thoughtful, empathetic, and dedicated……until they opened their mouths.

The old adage ‘stop while you are ahead’ would have applied perfectly to this group of holier-than-thou men.  Upon opening their mouths they unleashed a flurry of insults toward the character of Job, hurtful lies about the Lord’s will for his life, and accusation upon accusation which included Job being the cause of his ten children’s deaths.  Wow – with such fine friends, who needs enemies?  Job was already battered and beaten before his friends’ entrance and yet somehow their plan of comforting him turned into an even worse nightmare.  No wonder Job responded to their diatribe with, “If only you would be altogether silent!  For you, that would be wisdom” (Job 13:5).

Silence – the key to all comfort.  So many times we fill moments of solitude with words in order to make ourselves more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, or to make sense of a nonsensical trial.  Yet those in pain do not need words of advice – they need the touch of a tender hand, the warmth of a cup of tea, or the tears of a compassionate heart.  Such simple gestures illicit powerful gratefulness from the victim of a bleeding heart.

When my husband and I lost our baby, Annabelle, I realized how unprepared I was for the onslaught of painful statements I endured from those I loved.  With my reserves down and my sensitivities up, I felt like a continual punching bag for those well-meaning friends who were just ‘trying to help.’  The irony was, my Christian friends seemed to cause the worst infractions.  So many presumed to know God’s plan for my damaged life and used that ‘knowledge’ to help reform me.  My agnostic friends never assumed God’s role because, to them, there was no God.  In order to cope, as statements were made, I journaled an on-going list of ‘What Not to Say to Someone Whose Baby Has Died.’  After each statement, I wrote down my immediate, inner response in parenthesis.  Here are a few, tame examples:

**********

“It is all in God’s plan.”

(I don’t want to hear that my baby dying is a part of God’s plan)

“Just remember – God’s timing is perfect.”

(No time will ever feel perfect for my daughter to die)

“You are going to be fine – don’t worry, you are just fine.”

(I don’t feel fine and, for once, why can’t I feel really sad – my child just died)

“There was probably something wrong with your baby anyway.”

(Regardless of whether my baby was sick or not, I still loved her and wanted her.  Did I want Rebecca any less because she was sick?)

“You already have such a great family.”

(Yes, but wouldn’t our family be even better to have the little girl we prayed for and loved?  And wouldn’t I still be sad if one of my other three children were missing from this family?)

“Looking back and seeing how hard your year was going to be, aren’t you thankful for God’s grace in taking your child?”

(Never under any circumstances, no matter how hard my family’s life became, would I be thankful my child was dead.  And don’t you think the God of all creation has the strength to empower me to take care of my children through allcircumstances?)

“Have you considered the fact your family may be under a generational curse?”

(Are you kidding me? Now I have to worry about being punished for my great-great-grandfather’s sins on top of everything else?)

*********

I was able to learn from these statements by writing them down and studying how these words made me feel.  I, like Job, needed silence and quiet service, not rationalizing and justifications.  If I was unable to make sense of God’s plan in the middle of my circumstances, what made someone else feel they could presume from the outside?

A grief counselor gave me my best piece of advice on how to respond to what can be sheer nonsense.  She said, “View unwanted statements from loved ones as an awkward gift – their intentions were kind yet the gift itself, entirely unwanted and altogether unhelpful.”  So, what do you do when Aunt Betsy gives you that ridiculous looking reindeer sweater that is three sizes too big?  Do you yell at her?  Do you lose your temper?  Do you tell sweet Aunt Betsy to jump off a bridge?  No, you smile and say thank you while thinking of a way to get rid of this never-to-be-worn garment.

Although there were many times I wanted to lose my temper, yell, and tell my friend to jump off a bridge, I knew they were attempting (in their own misguided way) to show compassion.  Thinking of the awkward gift analogy, I learned to smile and nod my head as they dispensed their faulty advice.  And the second they left, I ran as fast as I could to my journal to write another entry that will one day be included in my bestselling ‘What Not to Say’ book! Christyn Taylor (website coming soon)

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