I love the Coffee and Sweatpants Facebook feed. One of the illustrations posted last week said that if someone can live through something awful, you can at least bear witness. (This is an unartful paraphrase, so go web search Coffee and Sweatpants.) This idea has stuck with me since I saw it, and it reminds me of Job declaring that his redeemer would stand and recount his deeds, and he would be justified. I think this is what funerals are all about.
We gather to publicly mark the passing of a life, to bear witness to the agony of the loved ones left behind. We tell ourselves that we are comforting them with our food and our presence, and maybe we are. But our words fall hollow in a mourner’s ears; nothing we say is going to heal their broken heart. We can only bear witness to the tragedy and simply be present.
Death isn’t the sole cause of grief, so we must be present enough in our loved ones’ lives to observe the invisible losses that trigger a shower of casseroles and floral arrangements. Bear witness. Be there. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2
What does it look like to bear witness? I don’t know. I conjure mental images of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but this seems wholly impractical and loud. As a practice in my life, I try to be what I needed when I was trying to cope with loss, but I also try to temper that with what I know of the person. If you are crying, I will most likely hug your stuffings out because when I cry, I want to be wrapped up and held. If I have never met you or don’t know you well enough to squish your guts out, I will go for the side hug and rub or pat your back until you can at least form sentences. I will not leave you until you tell me to go away or I know that you are feeling at least a tiny bit better, even if it’s awkward. I excel at awkward.
Bearing witness can be as simple as merely acknowledging what someone is feeling and validating their experience. “I’m sorry you are experiencing this. I know that you are feeling sad/angry/depressed. I’m here if you need to talk.” That’s it. Nothing fancy – just sincere acknowledgement that sometimes life sucks and we don’t know why. And then listen without interrupting when someone shares their pain with you.
You can’t fix it, and you won’t say any magic words that will take away the pain. We so often want to say beautiful words as a balm for wounded souls, but in my experience receiving those attempts, they generally aren’t helpful. So many of the “churchy” phrases we offer come out sounding judgmental or hurtful, even though our intentions are pure. To bear witness is not to testify, so be simple and kind: “I love you. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” If words are not your thing, offer a hug or a cup of coffee or a casserole; food is a bona fide love language in the South. Bottom line: be the witness you wish you had when you were experiencing tragedy.