“Life can’t be that bad,” I said, in response to a patient who no longer wanted to live. I had tried to reduce her despondency; I didn’t want her to take her life. I felt somewhat surprised, therefore, to hear her bawl even louder. A chaplain trainee beginning work in a psychiatric hospital, I had a lot to learn, especially about saying the wrong thing. I had minimized my patient’s grief.
That’s a strategy we use to help others in distress–minimize the reason for their suffering. Like Job’s friends in the William Blake illustration above, at first we don’t know what to say. Once we gather our wits to say something, with the kindest of intentions we offer what we hope will quiet our friend’s distress.
When We Give Up
Like my patient, Job had also wanted to die. In Chapter 3 he describes at length the meaninglessness of his life of suffering: “Why did I not die at birth?” (v. 11. Trans: Jewish Publication Society), he asks. He prefers the peace of death to a life of grief and loss. Many people today also come to that very point.
Job’s first friend to respond, Eliphaz, points out what to him seems obvious, “See, you have encouraged many; you have strengthened failing hands . . . But now that it overtakes you, it is too much; it reaches you and you are unnerved” (4:3-5). You, Job, have had the answers for others in their grief, so why are you making such a big deal? If you knew how to help others, why can’t you just apply the same lessons to yourself?
Making it Worse
Boy, does that backfire! Here’s why:
1. Job’s suffering is unique in his eyes, as is our own, at least at first. If we compare our friend’s loss to the suffering of others, it reduces our appreciation of what that loss means, of how that loss affects our friend, and reveals how little we understand. “If my anguish were weighed . . . it would be heavier than the sand of the sea” (6:2), Job says in his first reply to Eliphaz. That is, “You have no idea of the enormity of my suffering; you understand nothing!”
2. To minimize the grief is to devalue the person. The Academy of Grief Counseling recently produced a short video to help us on this issue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_4V7qXVhX0#t=10 Job feels he’s not as important to his friend as he thought. Now that Eliphaz diminishes him, Job grieves secondarily over losing his “friend.”
3. Eliphaz is correct here. It’s one thing for me to comfort others, it’s another when tragedy strikes me. But just because we’ve helped other people doesn’t mean we feel our own grief any less. Now my loss is real, my grief is palpable, and my future is uncertain.
I later learned the reason for my patient’s suicidal thoughts: because of neglect due to her mental illness, the State had removed her children from her care.
How have people minimized your grief and loss? How did you respond?
[Source: William Blake, Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. With Descriptive Letterpress, and A Sketch of the Artist’s Life and Works. By Charles Eliot Norton (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1875). Chapter: PLATE VII. “ They lifted up their Eyes afar off, and knew him not. ” Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/2155/200008 on 2013-09-17 Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals. This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.]