By Norris Burkes Jan 23 2020
I am a professionally employed chaplain. I’m schooled, ordained and certified. I’ve even been to war.
But last week, I attended three funerals that reminded me how I can feel as helpless as anyone when trying to comfort a heartbroken friend.
The first funeral was for Joe Feld, a Pearl Harbor survivor. The hardest part was squeezing into my old uniform. The easiest part was honoring his military service and sharing his humor. At 96, Joe saw death as more relief than grief.
Things got harder the next day when my wife and I sat bleary-eyed during the funeral of 29-year-old Kirsten Nichols. Kirsten’s dad is a long-time chaplain friend, Dennis Nichols.
What do you say when death comes out of order? An old proverb suggests that, happiness comes when “grandfather dies, father dies, son dies.”
What could we say to Dennis and his wife, Sue? What do we write in a card, what do I whisper during the condolence hug? I can only hope I gave Dennis the sacred space he needed to tell me how lost he found himself.
But I felt the most consternation about speaking for Rebecca Yule’s funeral. She was the sister of my best friend of 44 years, Roger Williams. Just before Christmas, Becky developed a sudden terminal infection.
Becky has lived with Roger and his wife, Belinda for the past two years. Our lives often intersected over the delicious meals she cooked, all the while exchanging funny stories and political views.
Still, I struggled with inadequacy. After all, Roger manages a department of hospital chaplains. He sits with families as their tragedies unfold in the ER. He prays with patients as cancer ravages their bodies. He holds babies after they die. How do you bring comfort to someone who has heard and seen all this?
While every situation is different, I can list the things I did not say at these funerals.
1. I did not preach, “Everything happens for a purpose.” That’s because if there’s a purpose for drunk drivers, cancer, or tornadoes, I haven’t found it.
Instead, I tried to show my friends, “God is here. I am here. We will walk through this together.”
2. While I believe in heaven, I certainly did not tell anyone that their loved one went to a better place.
As a novice minister, I said that only a few times, before being asked, “How is that ‘place’ better than being with me?” Or the grieving relative would say, “Then God can take me there, too!”
Instead, I asked my friends what they think happens after this life. Roger answered by telling me of a dream Becky had about heaven and her certainty that she would see her loved ones.
3. I surely didn’t tell the grievers, “I know how you feel.” Instead, I may have said something like, “I have a sister whom I couldn’t imagine losing. I’d love to hear what your sister meant to you.”
4. I can assure you that I never promised, “God won’t give you more burdens than you can handle.” This is a misquote of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says, “God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to escape.” Its most logical interpretation is that God will help us resist temptations, not death.
It seems people use that verse to speak for God, but I’ve found it more helpful to say something like, “God must have loved you very much to have given you a sister like that.”
5. Finally, I absolutely avoided using the word “if.” As in, “IF there is anything I can do, just ask.”
I learned from my sister not to say that to anyone unless you’re ready to back it up. At my father’s funeral, my sister Julie stood ready to accept all offers.
When people asked IF there was something they could do, she had a sign-up sheet for them to answer phones, drive relatives to the airport or bring meals during the following month when people tend to forget the survivors. It will forever warm my heart to remember the man who signed up to mow my mother’s lawn for a year.
Not everyone will know what to say to the anguished, but deep down, most us don’t need my sister’s list to help the grief-stricken. So, my best advice when you find yourself at a loss for words is this: “Say little. Do much.”
The doing will say more than you can ever imagine.
Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.