The Book of Job: A Three Thousand-Year-Old Story of Grief

 

By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
john@metanoiaumc.org

 

Part Two: Miserable Comforters 
 

 

Fortunate is the bereaved person who has genuine friends—loyal companions whose steady, caring presence helps sustain them through prolonged periods of grief.

Unfortunately such companions are rare.  And sometimes the pain of a personal loss is complicated by a further loss—the sudden or gradual fading of friendships when “friends,” for a variety of reasons, cannot deal with their discomfort in the face of another person’s grief.

 

The author of the story of Job, in the Hebrew scriptures, explores this dilemma at great length. Many a reader who has experienced deep grief will quickly identify with Job’s frustration, because of “friends” who make things worse by trying to minimize, intellectualize or rationalize the bereaved person’s loss.

The story begins well (see Job 2: 11-13):

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon [Job], each of them set out from his home . . . They met together to go and console and comfort him . . . They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

So far so good.  People who are grieving often acknowledge that the quiet presence of friends is more helpful than the chatter of companions who are trying to overcome their own discomfort in the face of grief by filling the void with words.

But then Job speaks, pouring out feelings of anguish and despair (see chapter 3). Wiser friends might just listen and acknowledge the need and the right of the bereaved person to say whatever they need to without having to face contradiction or correction from others.

But, after remaining silent for seven days and seven nights, Job’s three friends cannot resist attempting to explain his loss (See chapters 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, and 25).  Each in turn suggests to Job that there must be a reason for his misfortune and even that he must bear some responsibility for it.  They infer that perhaps God is punishing Job for some unacknowledged or un-confessed sin, or that maybe God is just trying to teach Job a valuable lesson.  Does this sound familiar to you who are grieving today?

Job’s extended responses to each of the three friends can be summarized in a few words: “you are wrong in your judgments, your inferences are unfair, and you are not helping me in my time of grief.”

Who among us, when experiencing grief, has not wanted to say these same things to friends who have tried to minimize, intellectualize or rationalize our loss.

Sometimes our friends mean well, even if their attempt to explain is awkward because it represents a simple failure to understand the nature of grief and loss.  But sometimes our friend’s behavior is not so benign.  They may be engaging in a willful, if unconscious, attempt to build a defense against their own fear of loss.  By finding a reason to blame us for our loss, or to at least explain it as something specific to us, they may be trying to reassure themselves that they won’t have to face a similar loss.

And sometimes our friends will just “disappear,” literally or figuratively.  Perhaps they fear, even unconsciously, that our misfortune may rub off on them.  This was Job’s experience as well.  He laments: 

                                                  
                           
My brothers stand aloof from me,
                                      And my relations take care to avoid me.
                            My kindred and my friends have all gone away,
                                       And the guests in my house have forgotten me.
                                                   . . . . .
                             All my dearest friends recoil from me in horror;
                                       Those I loved best have turned against me.

                                                                             -- Job 19:13-15, 19

 

 

At Grief Watch we have developed a simple card that can be handed to friends whose reaction in response to our grief leaves something to be desired.  You can purchase this card on this website.  Or, if you prefer, you can make your own.

The front of the card says “YOU’RE NOT HELPING!”  The back of the card says, “Here’s how you can help me: Don’t try to fix me. Let me be sad. Trust me to know how to grieve. Mention my loved one’s name. Let me cry. Help me remember.”

But even a message like this may not help.  The hard reality is that through the journey of grief we may have to lose some once loyal friends, who turn out to be not so helpful. 

The good news is that, in support groups and elsewhere, we can expect to find new friends who can truly support us in our grief because they have already walked the road of grief and they know how be with us without trying to judge us or fix us.

 


Next month:
 Part Three: "Am I Going Crazy?"

 

Missed a segment?  Read it here:

Introduction

Part One: Getting into the Story