Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


A How-to Guide for Responding to Tragedy

From a dreaded diagnosis or traffic accident, to a death in the family or a natural disaster, tragedies large and small send out ripples across a chain of human connections. As Christians, we are to share God’s love with those in need, but how can we make a difference in the lives of those who are hurting? While you won’t be able to take all the pain and suffering and make it go away, you can have a positive effect on those suffering emotional or physical pain.

In his Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus showed how we are to be neighbors to others. A man is beaten by bandits and left for dead on the road. A temple priest and a Levite, who was also part of the priestly tribe, pass by the man without helping. Instead it was a Samaritan, whose people were at odds with the rest of Israel, who helped the man in need.

The question Jesus asked as he finished the parable is most telling. He asks, “Which one of the three was a neighbor to him who fell among thieves?” The story started with the question of who is my neighbor and ended with the answer that it matters who acts as neighbor to the one in need.

In other words, Jesus shows that God does not start with me as the person who wants to provide aid and answer with limits on who I have to help. God begins with the person in need and asks, “Who do I have in the area who can help?” Looked at in this way, you will sometimes be the person God has in the area who can respond in a time of tragedy.

How you respond will depend on the gifts God has given you. As the Apostle Paul taught in writing about the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12), we each have differing abilities given to us by God. The key is to discover your gifts and then use them to help others in time of need.

The most commonly heard statement in the wake of some personal tragedy is “Let me know how I can help.” It is generally sincere and largely unhelpful. This statement puts the burden on the one in need.

Try something more specific based on your abilities. For a cancer patient with young children, if you have the time and talent, offer free childcare. To the caregiver of a dying spouse, offer to mow the grass. Or to the family in grief offer meals, or to handle phone calls coming into the house, or to keep up with the help coming in to organize thank you notes. When the offer is more specific, the answer will more frequently be “Yes.” Find the way that you can best help others and then be open to making the offer as needed.

Beyond these offers of direct assistance, there is the question of how to respond. What do you say and how do you say it. When writing, opt for a hand-written note. It is generally best not to try to explain the tragedy or make it better. Words like “well at least you have other children” or “he had a long, full life” may be true, but they sometimes wound rather than heal.

Instead of trying to make it all better, you can just be honest with something more like, “I don’t know how you feel or what you are going through, but I wanted you to know I care.” This line of writing opens the connection to the person in physical or emotional pain without trying to jump to solving the problem.

With that said, I don’t want to discourage you from writing a note. Even a note that gets off track and says the wrong thing will still convey that you care. Erring on the side of being in communication is most helpful.

Even better than writing is to go in person. When you show up and are able to listen, you have offered the greatest gift of all. What a person going through medical treatment, dealing with grief, or otherwise making sense of tragedy needs most is a safe place to be able to process what he or she is thinking. Listening without judgment, and without trying to make it all better (which will take much more time than a single conversation) is the best you can offer.

Whenever you go in person or call on the phone, begin with “Is this a good time?” If the answer is no, then respect that answer. Let the person know that you are available to listen and then check in the next day or the next week. When the time is right, try to listen much more than you speak and allow for longer than comfortable pauses to make room for the other person to think. When it feels right, a hug or touch of the hand may be the most healing thing you can offer.

For men, going and listening does not come easy. But if it is a man dealing with tragedy, he may only open up and talk with another man. If you have a good friend dealing with a personal tragedy, then even if you do not think this is your gift, you may still be the person God has in the area. It may take you out of what you think you can do, but remember, you don’t have to be good at it, you just have to be present to your friend. God will make up the difference by being with the two of you.

And remember to call the pastor. Make sure that your pastor and the pastor of the people most directly affected by the tragedy knows what is happening. Do not assume that he or she already knows. But having called a pastor does not mean that your job is completed. For while a pastor can and will want to help, it is the close friends and family who will be able to stay in touch day by day and week by week for the year or years ahead. Be open to being the person who takes on that role and you will find that God will bless you as you show love to your neighbor.

The above is my religion column for today's issue of the Tribune & Georgian.



  • At 3/26/2010 11:11 AM, Anonymous Kelly said…

    After Joe's accident, my King of Peace family understood so well "Is this a good time?" They also gave me the enormous gift of "We're here for you. Just let us know what to do and when." That was the BEST gift ever!

    Unfortunately, many of our friends who meant well, and were so appreciated by us, didn't see our overwhelming need for the time and space to adjust. I became increasingly stressed from several weeks of organizing and comforting them, taking 50 to 100 phone calls a day, trying to give answers when there were none to repeated questions and pleas, "entertaining" visitors when I really just wanted to be with Joe, or rest with the boys when I got home from the hospital. I reluctantly had to turn off the phones, not answer the doors, and send out emails asking for time and space. I tried not to sound rude, but to some, it was taken the wrong way and they still look at me as ungrateful to this day--even though that was not the case.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that sometimes responding to tragedy does not have to be immediate. Many times the gifts of friends and family are better suited to the future where there is time for hand holding, prayers, talking and the need for some return to normalcy.


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