JOPLIN, Mo. —
If you have not faced it, you probably will.
The circumstances will likely be other than those in Newtown, Conn. But one day, because you care and because you love, you will find yourself face to face with someone in the grasp of deep emotional pain.
I am talking about those shocking and unbelievably painful experiences that threaten all of us -- a family receiving a flag-draped coffin; a young couple going home without the baby to a waiting nursery; a young mother with a terminal illness; a life-changing illness diagnosed just as retirement begins.
I am talking about those untimely deaths and life-altering moments that shatter time and kill dreams.
We do much better with "timely" death. We can speak comfortably and honestly to those who have lost a spouse or a parent whose time had come. But we search desperately for the right things to say when death comes much too early.
So, what do we say? What will help? Reports coming out of Newtown in the aftermath of the recent shooting bring this matter into stark clarity.
Someone searching for the right words suggested that the night sky will burn more brightly as the lost school children take their places among the stars in heaven. Someone else suggested that these young children are on a heavenly field trip and are picnicking with angels. Our president, in his own struggle to find the right words, concluded that "God has called these children home."
No one should doubt the care behind each of these efforts. Whether these words are intended to be literal or metaphorical, they are not helpful.
Those grief-stricken parents want their child home, in bed -- not as a star in the night sky. They want their child home, at the dinner table, in the normal place for dinner -- not at a picnic in heaven. Excursion into fantasy is not helpful.
Those parents who have faith in God want to know what God is doing. They want to experience God's closeness.
I understand our need to feel God is in control, but do we really mean that God "called" these children home? Does not that, in a backhanded way, place the responsibility of this upon God? It is imperative that we think through these things before we speak.
During the dark days following the death of my first child, a baby boy, people came to me wanting to offer comfort. A friend spoke at length about the hope of additional children and assured me that I would move beyond this.
While this was true because it did happen, at that particular moment I was not comforted. I wanted my son.
Another friend talked of God's will and how we have to accept it. Then, another friend came, sat down beside me, spoke very little and simply shared my pain. When he was gone, I missed him.
In the Old Testament story about Job, we find that his friends came to him having heard of his devastation and the untimely deaths of his family members. They remained with him for seven days before they spoke (Job 2:11-13).
With their quiet presence, they shared his grief. The time for conversation would come later.
So, when we do come face to face with a friend who is in deep emotional pain, what are we to do? We speak little.
There are no right words in such times. Our presence is what matters most. It is said that when sorrow is shared, it is cut in half.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.