Friends in the valley
The blessing of a loving and caring Christian community during a time of grief.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
(Psalm 23: 4)
A wise person once said, “if you live long enough, you will face suffering”. Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that in this world they will face trouble (John 16:33). Despite the naïve promises of the wealth and health gospel, the reality as we live this side of heaven is that life will involve pain, loss and suffering. While these will come in diverse ways to different people, the bottom line is that at some point, you will find yourself in the valley, faced with unbearable pain, whether from a personal physical ailment, loss of a loved one or some other kind of suffering that the Lord may allow.
While God does not promise to remove the valleys, he certainly promises that he will be with us through the valley (Psalm 55:22). David understood this, so he boldly declares that even if he was to find himself in the darkest of valley, which he did countless times, he would not fear for he was confident of the Lord’s presence. Now, grief can be one such valley. Reflecting on the time when we walked in the valley of grief after the loss of our son Andile on the 27th of August 2018, I can certainly say that one of the ways we saw God’s presence in the valley was through the blessing of a loving and caring community of Christian friends. I am using term friend a bit more loosely here, but the truth is that having caring, sensitive and available friends can make the valley experience a lot more bearable.
In a sense, this reflection is more of a tribute to the loving community of Christian friends, who were both near and far, who stood with us in our time of grief. Grief is personal, and there is no one formula to face it or to care for those who are facing it, but I hope our reflections shared here, may help provide some helpful thoughts on how to care for those in the valley. Some of the reflections may be more applicable for those suffering the pain of losing a child, but there are some basic principles underlying each point. So, how do we walk alongside those who find themselves in the valley of grief?
Be available – In difficult times, it is so comforting to know that there are people available and people that you can count on. We live in a busy world where people have to work, and life needs to go on. But in whatever way you can, it greatly helps for the suffering person to know that they have people they can count on. Something as simple as being available to sit with the grieving person can make a lot of difference. I remember some neighbours and other college friends who came to just sit with us, not saying much, in our time of grief. Just their presence and companionship meant a lot in that moment. We recall, our pastor, who brought his laptop and was sitting outside the hospital room on the Monday that our son was delivered lifeless. He had work to do, but he was available and he would check with us when it was ok to come in. What a mark this left in our hearts.
Be practical – Grief is tiring. For some people, the ability to perform your usual tasks can be dramatically reduced when you are going through grief. One of the things that can greatly help is to offer practical help to the person suffering grief. It could be offering to do groceries, clean the house or to prepare some food. It makes a lot of difference not having to think about some of these tasks and it communicates care and love. We cannot fully express how thankful we are for the many people who cared for us in practical ways during grief. We did not need to prepare dinner for a full month. Most of the funeral logistics were handled by others on our behalf. Some friends who were based in a different city, even decided to order a meal online and it was delivered to us for dinner. Practical help can make a difference.
Be genuine – As we seek to be caring friends, it is good to have genuine concern for the person who is in grief. Sometimes our desire to know what happened may turn us to be investigators, asking questions to feed our curiosity, rather than seeking to be a good companion. As it is with almost every virtue, the motive matters most. It is good to reflect on the love of God and let that drive us in our care for others, not doing it to look good or godly, but genuinely seeking the good of others in their moment of suffering and pain.
Be personal – Each case of grief is unique. One of the helpful things we can do is not to assume that we know how the person is feeling or what is best for them even if we might have gone through the same kind of suffering. This even applies to all the other ideas being suggested here. While these things were helpful for us, it is good to engage with the grieving person to understand what will be helpful for them as you seek to care for them. Coming with assumptions may cause more pain than relief. We can learn the dangers from the friends of Job, who came to Job assuming they had the answers, yet at the end they were proven all wrong.
Be prayerful – Our care and love for those grieving can only be helpful in as far as the Lord uses that care to bring comfort to the grieving person. We need to depend upon the Lord as we approach this. One sure way we can do that is to pray. We can pray on our own, asking God to help us to be good friends for those in the valley. We can pray together with the grieving person, asking God to make his presence known in that valley and to show his glory in that dark moment of life. We are forever thankful to the multitude of praying friends, who did just that for us and with us in our moment of grief.
We do not wish that any couple experience the loss we experienced, but sadly we know that many more will. Our prayer us that more people will be ready, available, and equipped to be good friends in the valley. As we remember our son’s 3rd anniversary, we write this with so much appreciation to God for our Sydney friends, whose care for us was and remains a great blessing.