An unusual time to attend church—two o’clock Friday afternoon. My husband and our eleven-year-old son, Paul, sat beside me in the large, worship-inspiring church. Flowers decorated the front of the sanctuary. The organist played beautiful music and the minister spoke in soft tones. But no one in the nearly full church was happy, because in the midst of the flowers rested the small, closed white casket of a ten-year-old boy we all knew.

David had often swung on the rope swing in our yard. He had played kickball in the driveway. At the Cub Scout meetings in our recreation room he sat next to Paul. A lovable rascal, he could be counted on for all sorts of mischief and fun. While waiting for his father after baseball practice he had dashed into the street in front of a car. He died within minutes.

This kind of accident causes empty, gnawing feelings of despair. We find ourselves asking, “Why, why?” Everyone experiences the cycle of hearing the news of a tragedy, hurting, seeking to reject it, accepting it, and finally reacting to it.

As I listened to the minister’s words and struggled to restrain the tears, God’s words, “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” came to mind. In the midst of our sorrow God cares. He loves us, but the love does not stop with a comforting verse of Scripture or with a prayer for strength. God’s love seeks to work through us as we share rather than observe another’s sorrow. The God of all comfort tells us, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isa. 40:1). In Galatians 6:2 we are exhorted to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Not that it is easy, not because we want to, but simply because the Lord God commands us.

Visiting a friend in the desert of despair is difficult. It is hard to stand silently while another struggles with hurt too deep to express. Watching tears stream down a father’s strong face can strike deep into our sensibilities. Sometimes we would rather ignore the hurting burden and hope it will go away.

But death is not like that. The act of saying good-bye to a friend or loved one is flashed into the book of our history like an image on a camera’s film. Destined to witness the drama, we discover we may choose only the mode: active participation or passive observation.

My first encounter with the death of someone close came at age five. The sobs of my austere aunt awakened me in the night: my elderly grandfather had died. In the dim light I could see my mother standing beside her sobbing sister. Frightened, I hid under the covers and hoped everyone would think I was asleep. Occasionally I peeked out to see what would happen next. I was a passive observer.

Article continues below

On the last peek I saw something that indelibly etched itself in my memory. Mother gently put her arms around my aunt and spoke quietly, reassuringly. The touch and the voice initiated an immediate response—the quiet of the night again prevailed. In the midst of death, peace. Active participation.

A few years later my father died. I tried to comfort my mother, who was engrossed in the myriad plans that must be made after a death, especially the death of a prominent person in the community.

My most vivid recollection of those emotionally dark days is of my father’s secretary, who invited me to go shopping the day before the funeral. A woman of few words, she never said, “I’m sorry your father is gone; I know the Lord will be with you. May the Lord bless you; now go play.” She made time to do something for me.

When we arrived at the store she said, “Would you like to have a new coat?” Surprised, I wondered how she knew I needed and wanted one. She watched patiently as I tried on several, and she helped me decide on a pretty green one with soft fur buttons. Her loving action conveyed care: active participation.

As we followed the hearse to the cemetery and my happy world seemed to have crashed into a wall of loss, I remember looking at the buttons and thinking, “All is not lost—you have beautiful fur buttons.” For a brief but very important moment I felt happy. When I outgrew the coat and had to give it away I saved the buttons, four small symbols of someone’s love.

If we choose to observe another’s hurt passively we contribute to the weight of the burden. If, however, we actively seek to share the weight, we realize the dividends of obedience to God’s commands and the intangible beauty of a helping relationship to another.

Timing is an important aspect of comfort. Sometimes it is best to pray now and go later; at other times our presence is needed immediately. The only son of a widow living in Alaska was killed while on a hunting trip. Upon hearing the news her brother in North Carolina called immediately. “Would you like me to come now?”

“No,” replied the bereaved mother, “everyone seems to be here now. Come next month in the winter of my grief, when the cards are slow and no one knocks at my open door.”

Article continues below

When our young friend David died, “everyone” seemed to be there. We waited a few days to visit the family. In the meantime we prayed for them. Our eight-year-old son summed up our feelings beautifully when he prayed, “Dear God, please comfort David’s family tonight. Help them know that even though there’s an empty place in their family, there is one more spirit in heaven now.” So often a child’s simple faith helps us in life’s most difficult times.

In a Science Service booklet entitled “Medical Discoveries” there is a drawing of a form of medicine practiced in ancient Egypt. A very thin, haggard man sits on the floor in a clinic with a stack of bricks under each armpit supporting his weight. Medical technicians busily mix and administer their potions.

Modern medicine has changed the potions to life-saving antibiotics, but what about the bricks supporting the man’s weight? Too often we leave our friends to suffer because we do not want to share and bear their burdens.

We must be willing to support others with a warm and loving care that says, “I am here because I am willing to share and bear your hurt.” Sharing and bearing will not be easy, but we can affirm with the psalmist, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.