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He was only 24 years old, and suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia. For years his loving parents relentlessly pursued help for him—to no avail. Then the phone call came: John had committed suicide. He could no longer live with the inner torment. I can't imagine how devastated and alone his parents felt.

What do you say to them? Somehow "I'll pray for you," while sincere, sounds trivial after such tragedy.

I often think of a certain church secretary before asking, "How are you doing?" She lost her son to a terrible accident. How often did she reply with the socially acceptable, "I'm OK," when inside she hurt deeply?

Often our nervousness leads to making inappropriate statements that get in the way. We want to offer a caring presence to the hurting but have no idea how. The following are suggestions for getting beyond our awkwardness. Many of them apply to multiple situations.

Chronic Illness

  • Try not to let your first words be about the person's health. Let her decide when and with whom to discuss her situation. Instead, cheerful greetings such as "Thanks for letting us come by," "I am so glad to see you," or "We miss you at Bible study" show she is more than her disease or condition.
  • Understand that new treatment information or stories of others' treatment can cause anxiety—as do questions of whether the person has received the correct care. Be mindful that everyone responds differently to treatment. Responses such as "Jane got really sick from it" or "Are you losing your hair yet?" are not helpful.
  • Bring prepared foods. Cooking may be tiresome, or perhaps nothing sounds good. If a person is bedridden, picnic with him in the bedroom if that sounds good to him.
  • Give a gift certificate for a manicure or massage. Life's little pleasures help soothe the body and mind.
  • Bring over DVDs, magazines, or library books. Your loved one would still like to enjoy life as much as possible. Skiing may be out, but sitting by the fire and reading is good.
  • Know your loved one's sense of humor. Laughter hides in strange places. When my sister went through chemo and radiation for breast cancer, a friend filled her mailbox with humorous get-well cards that became the highlight of her days.

When Death Is Imminent

The greatest gift we can give the dying is our presence. Always call before visiting to ask if it's a good day to stop by. Be prepared for a physical change.

  • Feel free to hold a hand or stroke an arm.
  • Talk about something other than the illness, unless the person brings it up. Assure him by saying, "It's hard to make sense of this."
  • Remember that even your tears express love.
  • Pray together if you're comfortable with that.
  • Again, appropriate humor may be appreciated. Follow your loved one's lead.

Funerals and Afterward

Your presence alone will comfort the bereaved. A familiar face, a hug, or a hand squeeze affirms the message "I want to be with you at this time."

  • Share memories. It's healing. Mourners want to hear stories about their loved ones.
  • Avoid: "You are holding up so well"—the person may be falling apart inside. "Time heals all wounds"—not true. I still ache from the tragic deaths of four immediate family members. "I know how you feel"—no one can know what another person feels.
  • Never tell a couple who has experienced a miscarriage that it was God's will or that adoption is an option.
  • Avoid "Think of all you still have to be thankful for."
  • Avoid "He's in a better place now"—this is not always comforting in the midst of loss.
  • Avoid nervous "fix-it" words such as "Things will get better."
  • Don't ask, "What are you going to do now?" This is a confusing time.

Any Situation

Being specific in your offers of help gives people an opportunity to say no and define other needs. For example, instead of "Call me if you need me," say, "I have time on Monday that is yours. May I mow your lawn, get groceries, or take care of your kids?"

  • Food doesn't have to be homemade. Give gift certificates to restaurants that deliver, or pick up a favorite pizza, fast food, or latte.
  • Offer to make calls and answer the phone (keep a record of who calls so you can share it with your loved one).
  • Assist with daily tasks, children, appointments, and errands.
  • Manage pickup and lodging for out-of-town relatives.
  • Be a friend, not a hero. Avoid authoritative phrases such as "You should" or "You are" or "You will."
  • It's OK to say, "I don't know how you feel or what to say, but I care about what is happening to you."

"I am so sorry this is happening to you" were the most compassionate words anyone ever said to me. This followed our adopted son's biological mother locating him and the turmoil that followed. Imogene recognized my devastation. Because of her words I began the healing process.

As we walk alongside those in pain—and, yes, pray for them — we, too, can act as anchors during illness, loss, and self-doubt.

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