Pray, sure. And stay, please.
Just yesterday, I had a memory flash from 1994. Neighbors who I’d never met came to my house after Cheyenne (my newborn daughter) died. He was a pastor at a nearby church, and they had thoughtfully brought over some vegetables from the garden. They asked to come inside. They wanted to know what happened. I was still out of body. I didn’t know - really- how to answer their questions. I didn’t even know, myself, what really happened. I just waned in and out of tears as they fell on the tomatoes, apologizing for my distress. And they allowed my fumbled apologies. I don’t remember their names. I don’t remember much else about the brief conversation we had. I do remember as they left, he said pitifully, “We’ll pray for you.”
I remember how this offer landed on me.
“We’ll pray for you.”
“Thank you,” I said back, despite that I’d no idea my beliefs at that time.
And then I started to wonder: what will they pray?
Will they pray for comfort? Will they pray that I stop crying and feeling grief? Will they pray for understanding? Will they pray my child back to life?
Then I started to wonder ‘why are they praying for me?’
Are they praying for me because I’m so broken? Are they praying for me because I need healing? Are they praying for me because my pain makes them uncomfortable? Are they praying for me because because I’m doing something wrong by grieving?
And sadly I never saw or heard from them again.
I remember wishing they'd have just said their prayers and never told me their intentions because it exacerbated my feeling, rightfully or not, of abandonment in grief.
Now, I wonder: Why did they tell me they were going to pray for me?
Was it because of their own need to do something to help? Or to fix? Or to assuage? Or was it out of uncontaminated compassion? One day, I was sitting in my home, alone, terrified, lonely... few would talk about my dead child with me. On the rare occasions I would share my emotions honestly with others, I felt chided with comments like, "It's been three months, aren't you better yet?" or "God needed an angel to tend his garden," or "Just don't think about it. It's time for you to move on." I thought, "Maybe that pastor could help."
And then I remembered that he prayed for me. And I never heard from him again. And it seemed, at least at the time, that prayers weren't helping; they weren't some incantation that assuaged my grief. And I didn't reach out to him or his wife.
Here’s what I wished happened:
In addition to saying, “We'll pray for you,” what I wished they'd also said (and done) is to say, “We'll stay with you.”
“We'll stay with you through this heartbreak.” “We'll stay with you through all the tears.” “We'll stay with you and not try to fix or change you.” “We'll stay with you and not judge you.” “We'll stay with you so you aren’t so alone.” “We'll stay with you and I’ll remember her too.” “We'll (at least) stay with you until you have others willing to stay with you too."
There is absolutely nothing wrong with offering prayers for someone (given the appropriateness based on relational trust and spiritual beliefs).
But- and spiritual leaders hear me - prayers alone aren’t always enough. If you have the capacity to help, you must do more than pray- you must also stay.
Years later, I received a phone call from a pastor named Dave Johnson. Dave, a new pastor, told me about a couple in his church who'd recently lost their precious young son. He admitted feeling afraid, unprepared to help them through this horrific tragedy. He asked for my help.
For six hours, and with humility and love in his heart, he became a student of grief. He learned how to stay with the family, not just pray for the family. Ultimately, his loving presence fell like grace upon the brokenhearted.
He was there with them, in every way, nonjudgmentally, without expectations or curatives, with no clumsy attempts to palliate. I know he prayed for them. I heard his prayers. More importantly, he stayed with them. And that compassion carried their hearts through many weeks, months, and years of incomparable grief.
*** Pray for us, certainly. Maybe even pray with us, if and when we are ready.
But more importantly, stay with us.
Because the most exquisite prayer you can offer is your compassionate presence, a holy offering more essential and beneficent for the brokenhearted than any other balm.
We welcome spiritual leaders, as well as social workers, physicians, mental health providers, mortuary scientists, crisis interventionists, and others at our Compassionate Bereavement Care (tm) provider training.
My book, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, & the Heartbreaking Path of Grief