It is said that friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief. That’s true: good news becomes better when we can share it, and the burden of sorrow is lighter when there is more than one person to carry it. This is the straightforward counsel of St. Paul: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
Most of us feel pretty inadequate in the face of another’s suffering. We are afraid we might say the wrong thing or attempt to get out of the awkward situation by mouthing some platitude like, “I know how you feel.” As daunting as this work of mercy appears, however, in one way it is the easiest to perform because often the best comfort we can provide comes from doing and saying nothing, but just by being there with our grieving friend. There are no magic words that make the pain vanish, but there are the looks and touches that say, “You’re not alone.”
As with other works of mercy, this one calls for delicacy. People grieve in different ways, so there is no simple formula for giving comfort. One very practical suggestion is, when a loved one experiences some kind of shock or loss, turn a few pages in your calendar and jot a note to get in touch in a month or so to see how they are doing. There is often a flurry of sympathy when tragedy strikes, but after a few weeks the afflicted person finds that people have moved on to other concerns. Sorrows don’t space themselves out, and it is understandable that subsequent events distract people. If we make a note to get in touch from time to time, our small doses of sympathy will be more effective – like those “time release” capsules that provide medicine over a period of time.
Our comfort can take practical forms, too. Especially in the aftermath of a death or some other catastrophic event, the suffering person not only has to deal with their grief, but there may be concerns that now have become their responsibility – taking care of business, managing the house, looking after children. An occasional helping hand can bring great comfort.
A time of sorrow can be, even with its difficulties, a unique time of grace. St. Paul knew this. He suffered many things because of his fidelity to Christ, but he also knew a tremendous inner peace that came from God. At the beginning of his Second Letter to the Corinthians he gave thanks for this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
If in our own times of sorrow we tap into the divine consolation that comes to us from “the God of all comfort”, we will be able to extend more than our own human sympathy to those who are suffering. We can bring them the sympathy of Jesus himself who, even though he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, wept at his tomb and mingled his sorrow with that of the dead man’s two sisters. Our God is a God of compassion, who shares our suffering, and a God of comfort, who shares his strength. His appeal to us, as to the prophet of old, is: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Is 49:14).