‘We come over, and sit’

I have a been a Bishop now for 18 months and though I don’t like to talk about it online I think that it is important to know if I am to express what I want to say in this post.

Last week the wife of one of my counsellors died.  She had been sick for a very long time, and though she had deteriorated quickly in the weeks preceding her passing, it was still a shock to many in the ward.

I have gone through this experience before with another family but I still felt woefully inadequate to comfort and counsel a man, who was not only 45 years my senior, but who also has been a faithful member of the Church longer than I have been alive.  I love him and his wife but there was nothing I could say that did not seem trite or insignificant when faced with such overwhelming pain.  As I watched him shift between reminiscent laughter and deep sadness I could not patronise nor condescend to offer hollow words of advice.  I felt what it is like to despise my youth.

Within the limited scope of my life-experience, few situations have been as painful as the spiritual vacuum that I have felt sitting with him.  It is not so much that I felt deserted by God but rather that I had no right to speak about experiences I have never had and could not conceive.

Yet, infantile as it seems, a scene from ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ has offered me great consolation in such circumstances.  After the tragic, fatal diagnosis of Lars’ plastic girlfriend some of the women come over and sit, because ‘that is what we do in hard times’.  Despite my lack of spiritual insight and my narrow capacity with language, I have been able to visit and to listen.  Though I realise that this may not be what people want or expect from a Bishop, I have felt that it is all I can offer under such circumstances.

I only hope that my being-there is enough, because I can always go over and sit.

Comments

  1. Aaron,
    Though different circumstances, I had a similar experience (which I wrote about here). There are sometimes where words are inadequate.

  2. Glenn Thigpen says:

    A lot of times we can only trust in a person’s faith to carry them through. I do believe that just the presence of well wishers with a kindred spirit was a great blessing to that Saint.
    When my first wife died with almost no warning, I was devastated, although I knew her to be a really wonderful woman and had no doubts that she would be accepted into the Celestial Kingdom. I really did not want anyone to talk to me. But I really did appreciate those that came to me to put their arms around me, or just to press my hand.
    I felt their desire to comfort, to help and that was more than enough for me. The Spirit of the Lord and time provided the rest.
    I would feel much worse for those who do not understand and have the Gospel principles operative in their lives.

    Glenn

  3. Aaron R. says:

    Rusty, thank you for sharing that. A moving story, and a great example of service and love.

  4. The interview with Gary Ceran on the Conversations show on LDS Radio was deeply moving. Here is a man who lost a wife and two children in a car crash on Christmas Eve. But that was only after he’d already lost three babies to brain tumors and two children (twins) in premature birth.

    For a man who’s seen so much adversity, he has no bitterness. Instead, he seems genuinely grateful for the experience.

    That doesn’t mean he doesn’t cry when he talks about losing his wife.

  5. Aaron,

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Unless the source for one’s words are direct inspiration from God, they will invariably be insufficient to the task at hand. The best we can offer is to accompany the bereaved, hoping that the love shown by our presence lifts their dark burden just a little.

  6. Elouise says:

    I’ve just finished reading BEING JEWISH: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today, by Ari L. Goldman. I found his segment on mourning especially tender and useful. Though Goldman speaks of specifically Jewish traditions, I think his attitude and approach may be helpful across the human spectrum. Here are a few lines I found insightful:

    “The mourners should be allowed to set the agenda for conversation. At times they will need to talk about the deceased, recalling both the good times and sad; at other times, they will need to be reminded that life goes on by talking about their work, politics, or sports. . . .Every effort should be made to visit friends and relatives [and ward members, I'd add] during the shiva period. The point is not to cheer them up but to share their grief; sometimes that is done by just being present. Making a shiva visit is not easy. It means walking into someone’s home and confronting his or her most difficult reality. I have to admit that I’ve felt at least a bit of discomfort each time I’ve made a shiva call. Walking in the door is hard. But I have never regretted going. It is a small act of kindness that is long remembered.”

    It’s hard for me to keep in mind that “comforting” those who grieve is generally not achieved by preaching, teaching, offering platitudes (however wise), or trying to move the grieving one out of whatever stage of mourning he or she is in. Though I missed out on “Lars and the Real Girl,” I’d say someone had the right idea. Thank you, Aaron, for raising this very important subject.

  7. So beautiful, Aaron.

    The most meaningful gift others have given me during times of grief is setting aside their own desire/need to be comfortable. I think that’s why I’m quick to offer advice, platitudes, etc to those in pain–their suffering makes me uneasy (or downright agitated) and I want to excuse myself from it. But true charity includes a willingness to experience, to some extent, what the person in pain is experiencing. Sitting with them, without any agenda or intent other than being there, allows us to share that experience and often shows our sincere intent to love and support the individual far better than any words can convey.

  8. britt k says:

    coming over and sitting sounds wonderful

  9. Thanks for this. I am always too quick with words when others are struggling. This is a good reminder that just being physically present is valuable.

    And oh by the way, a Bishop employing “Lars and the Real Girl” as an example? Wow. I want to be in your Ward.

  10. Hi Aaron, I’ve been a Branch President for about 18 months as well. I’ve often tried to think of what I need to do for someone as I’m sitting and talking to them . . most of the time the feeling comes as “you’re already doing it”.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. Job’s three friends came and sat with him, just sat, for seven days before they started talking. The Lord taught us to mourn with those that mourn, not to teach them or uplift them. There is a time for everything.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, you’re a princely man. Thank you for this – all too often I feel the need to say words, to fix things. I guess some things aren’t about fixing.

  13. esodhiambo says:

    I think your presence is a powerful show of love. I understand, and certainly suffer from, not knowing what to say. Unfortunately, that often leads to people not saying or doing ANYTHING regarding the source of pain. Your presence acknowledges the pain, which is very comforting.

  14. It’s a wise man who understands that some things aren’t for fixing. Your compassion and being there is all you can do. God bless, AR.

  15. Thanks for that clip. I love that movie precisely for the simple and timeless wisdom of the characters involved. That was a lovely scene.

    When my dad died I remember so well the wish that I could be among people, but not really present. I wanted to be a part of the normalcy of others’ lives, yet didn’t possess the strength to participate myself. I wanted them to move around me, not toward me. I wished that they would go on as if I wasn’t there, yet allow me to be there, observing and soaking in the stream of life moving forward.

    Sometimes mere presence is more than enough to bridge the chasm where words fall short.

  16. Further to #11 from ji – it was only after Job’s friends started talking and trying to explain his suffering that they became “miserable comforters”. Perhaps an important example of what not to do when one’s friends are grieving.

  17. Kristine says:

    This is godly comfort–Christ does not take our afflictions away, but visits us in them.

  18. You’re doing the Lord’s work, Aaron.

  19. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this post. I can’t think of anything to say that is not trite or insignificant to add.

  20. Sunny, that’s a beautiful description of grief.

  21. I echo your sentiments, Aaron. Just being there is perhaps the most important thing we can do, and as a former bishop, quite often I realized I had nothing to say, other than just to express my love and the love of the ward members.

  22. living in zion says:

    Yes, yes, yes. The ability to be nearby and yet allow space is so needed at times of heartache.
    You are a compassionate man doing important work.

  23. Thank you, Aaron. Very timely for me.

  24. Jim Donaldson says:

    I think this is one of those times when the Lord turns our inadequacy and humility into strength. When you really don’t know what to say, sitting there quietly turns out to be the perfect thing. I don’t know that very many, in those moments, want advice, they want a simple show of concern and respect. Sitting there does it.

    I had a turn as bishop and did lots of sitting with grieving people. It was a profound spiritual experience for me.

  25. This is a great post, thanks.

  26. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks to all. Your kind words mean a great deal, and Tracey, I graciously accept that much needed blessing.

    Sunny, I too thought your comment was insightful and beautiful.

    Kristine, likewise I find real comfort in that idea, and also feel that he works with us whilst providing space to re-build a life of hope and love.

    Elouise, I loved that quote. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Antonio Parr says:

    Amen.

  28. Very wise response. I have recently loved a book that WJK published by one of the preeminent mainline Protestant preachers: Thomas Long, Accompany them with Singing. He has a wonderful section where he talks about hopeful doctrines (e.g. heavenly reunions) as a trust that we keep for people so that, when such reassurances will be actually useful (often months or years later), we can carry the faith back to them.

  29. Thank you for this.
    .
    We often feel that we have to solve others’ problems, which is true enough when we can solve them. In cases of personal loss, our friend knows we cannot undo loss of their spouse and that we likely can not even explain why he’s lost her.
    .
    What we can do is “strengthen the feeble knees and lift the hands that hang down” by showing our love and helping them carry this loss. Our grieving friend needs to feel a compensating love from us in the new void caused by his spouse’s departure. As you eloquently noted, just being there instead of any where else you could be shows your love. Retelling him of your love for him enhances this.
    .
    He also needs to know that his overwhelming pain matters — that he matters. We can help a friend carry their loss by showing them that we also are grieving for it. Retelling our friend of our loss for his departed wife and showing our grief at her loss helps. Sharing our sorrow with our friend does not mean that we are not giving strength to them; it means that we are joining them in their sorrow. Our hearts work in their own way: as our friend sees us carrying this weight, they feel that we are helping them to carry it. When our friend feels our pain for their loss, they feel that they are not alone. This also validates the importance of their loss in a very helpful and healing way.
    .
    I believe that this process and its result are part of what Christ sought when he pled in Gethsemane that we become one. In fact, he is the example from which I learned this. When I was going through a time of deep pain and repentance, I came to the thought that although Christ loved me, there was a gap between us because he had never done anything wrong and so did not understand my sorrow and pain. Then I found in Stephen Robinson’s explanation of Christ’s taking upon himself our guilt that To this the Savior responds essentially, “I know where you are; I’ve been where you are [...]. I know what you’re feeling, for I have felt it. I remember my own pain when I went through it, and my heart aches for you.” Understanding this made the Savior’s love offering much more meaningful and helpful because I knew that he knew what I felt. We do much for our grieving friends when we find a way to give this gift of open empathy as well.
    .
    If so prompted, we can lightly touch upon how God’s and others’ love helped us through our pains, but remember that this is a time for love and validation. Dwelling on the healing path to follow later may feel like deprecating the pain our friend feels now.
    .
    I hope this is helpful.

  30. I much, much appreciated those who simply said to us, “You are in our prayers. Let us know if there is anything we can do” in contrast to those who tried to “comfort” us by saying stupid things like, “Oh, it is in the Lord’s plan” or anything like that.

    Coming over and sitting. I am going to go get this movie now so I can see the whole thing. Thanks, Aaron.

  31. I’m a big fan of coming over to sit. And of not speaking words when there are none.

    Sometimes you sit and listen. Sometimes you hold someone’s hand. And (I don’t really advise this for a bishop) sometimes when your friend is curled in up the fetal position on her bed you climb up next to her and stroke her hair.

    It is profoundly spiritual and, in my book, one of the most significant ways we can take upon ourselves the name of God.

  32. CS Eric says:

    This is profound in its simplicity. I remember when both my mother and then my father died. Each time, I felt nothing so much as alone.

  33. it’s always helped me to hear specific stories/anecdotes/experiences others have had w/ the deceased. hearing how our loved 1 has touched others’ lives can be very comforting.

  34. Aaron, thanks for this simple and lovely post. As I began reading, I thought, “You don’t need to say anything; you just need to be there,” and of course that’s where you ended up. I wish that had occurred to me more often when I served as bishop. I think more often than I should have, I filled the silence with my words.

  35. Thomas Parkin says:

    Sometimes I think about having good friends as a kid. Often serving in PECs or ward council we would go round and round trying to decide what we should do for a person, or what they should do for themselves. If there was a visit, it seemed that it must be accompanied by some affirming or altering message. This post has helped crystallize for me why we very often just couldn’t figure it out. A friend is just a friend – they don’t have to make everything perfect, and they don’t have to give advice we neither want to hear nor are, in many cases, capable of following.

    When I was at a particularly rough spot, my bishop and friend said ‘we just don’t know what to do for you, Tom.’ I remember thinking and saying ‘why not just come over and talk hockey with me … it would be such a relief to not think about the problems for a few hours…’ It is nice to recall that our problems do not define us, and, I think, really important to recall that other people’s problems do not define them either.

    Very cool. ~

  36. Kathleen says:

    There have been times in my life when things have been awful, and I would have given anything for someone to just come over and sit with me.

  37. Wow…what a great lesson. So many times I want to be a the guy that fixes the situations but most times I just need to sit.

  38. You did the right thing Aaron. It was the best you could do. I loved Lars and the Real Girl.

  39. Having just been through a tragedy in our family, I can say that in my opinion, just being there and sitting is a great great service. The people who just came to me and hugged me or cried with me comforted me much more than those who tried to tell me things I didn’t want to or wasn’t ready to hear. Sometimes there really are few words that help.

    The words that do help and are never trite? “I love you.” “I’m so sorry.”

    (And as a sidenote, I’ve never been a fan of “I’m sorry for your loss.” I always thought it sounded way too contrived. And now? Doesn’t bother me so much. Funny.)

  40. Cynthia L. says:

    Bless you, Aaron.

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