How do you comfort someone going through a really hard time in life? Recently, I received an email from someone describing how his very good friend’s 42 year-old daughter (a woman with two young children, age 4 and 6 – his grandchildren) was diagnosed last year with cancer and just entered hospice. This man lost his only son 12 years ago in an auto accident. And on top of all this, his brother, with whom he’s extremely close, just had major heart surgery. He asked me if The Wisdom Daily had any guidance on what he could say to comfort his friend facing such a difficult time.
We’ve all had this challenge of how to respond to friends facing the myriad tragedies of life. We don’t know what to say. Our words seem either trivial or unintentionally insensitive. We don’t know what to do as we can’t change the situation and make things all better. And unconsciously, we may distance ourselves – even from people we care about – because it is sad, unnerving, and frightening to see people suffering unjustly and randomly. It makes us realize we have much less control and are far more vulnerable than we usually imagine, and it stings to know the truth about life: There is very little, if any, connection between our actions and our fate.
We have to conquer our own fears and reach out directly – not hide behind emails or voice mails – and be fully present.
But recognizing our inadequacy is the beginning of wisdom. In my experience, there’s only one thing to do when someone we care about is going through difficult times:
We have to conquer our own fears and reach out directly – not hide behind emails or voice mails – and be fully present, lend a shoulder to cry on, provide a hand to hold on to, and offer a heart to connect with.
People enduring the inevitable tragedies in life deserve extra doses of every form of care and kindness we can offer. And when they ask the inevitable question of why this is happening to them, we need to understand they’re really asking for assurance that they did nothing wrong to cause what’s happening, that God or the Universe is not punishing them. They want us to face the truth with them, that life is indeed often terribly, tragically unfair. They don’t want theological platitudes proffered like Job’s friends. Nobody wants to be alone in facing the absurdity of life. What anyone wants is to be encouraged – despite the unfairness of it all – to continue to hope and trust and love with all our heart and all our might.
The only wisdom to be learned in suffering is how precious life is, and the only “meaning” is what can never be taken away – the grace with which we respond, the memories we create, and the love we share.
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.