"Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." - Romans 12:15
It is uncomfortable to truly be present with someone in crisis. We can feel compelled to fill the silences with empathetic stories, humor, and words of encouragement or advice. When these fail, we are tempted to pack up our bag of tricks and leave. We feel that if we cannot be of any concrete help, our presence is unnecessary, even perhaps unwanted. Paradoxically, I think that it is often our presence that is covetted and our help that is often unwanted and perhaps unnecessary.
As a friend of mine recently said, "Being helpful is overrated. Being is harder."
I have heard so many stories in recent weeks of people in crisis who found themselves abandoned when they needed company the most because the people they relied on could not do the one thing they truly needed: Be. Someone to sit with them in their crisis. To stand beside them. To simply be in the eye of the storm. There, where any words of encouragement would be hollow and trite, any advice had already been tried, and humor was an unwelcome distraction.
In the Jewish faith, there is a beautiful tradition of "sitting shiva." Mourners who have lost immediate family members observe seven days of mourning, litterally sitting shiva on low stools, usually in the house of the deceased. It is considered a mitzvah--literally meaning "commandment" but more generally understood to mean "a good deed"--to visit with mourners during shiva. The laws and customs associated with this time of bereavement bespeak the wisdom of Romans 12:15 and of my friend, that sometimes the best--if hardest--thing to do is simply to weep with those who weep.
When a visitor enters a Jewish house of mourning, no greetings are exchanged. Visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation. Once engaged in conversation by the mourners, it is of course appropriate for visitors to talk about the deceased. The point is not to avoid conversation or to act like nothing has happened but to let the mourner determine the course and tone of the mourning. If the mourner never speaks, then the visitor never speaks. He merely sits. He is merely there. And, this is a mitzvah.
It can be frightening to meet someone in their grief. It can be unnerving for us to acknowledge that there may be no help. Like Job's friends, we itch to start spouting our wise maxims. For a mother who has miscarried, "God has a plan." To a friend who is devastated by long years of unanswered prayer, "Let go, and let God." For the widower, "She's in a better place."
All these things may be true, but they may also not be, and the real test is: is it necessary to share them? Perhaps, in some situations, it may be. In others, however, I think it is often preferable to simply be. And to be. And to be. For as long as we are needed. Like our Blessed Mother on Calvary, can we simply be, through it all, to the end, until it is finished?