The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sympathy

“I know how you feel. My dog died when I was eleven.”

I just read an excellent book by a man who has lost two wives, and included at the beginning of each chapter is a list of things to say or not to say to someone who is grieving. The opening sentence of this post might be on one of those lists. Can you guess which one?

Well-meaning people can say stupid things. While the loss of a pet can be traumatic and painful–it was for our family when Ebony, our beloved Labrador Retriever, was hit by a car in front of our house–it does not compare with watching one’s dearest friend and lover starve painfully to death before one’s eyes. Believe me–I know.

Sympathy. The noun comes from a Greek compound word meaning, “feeling together.” That’s what people are seeking to do when they offer us messages intended to communicate a degree of understanding of our situation when we grieve or encounter difficulty. They are seeking to include themselves in our circle of pain so we will know they care about us and want to help us bear our suffering on some level. That “circle of pain” is actually a series of concentric circles, with the smallest being composed of those people who have  experienced exactly what we are experiencing.

It is the nature of sympathy to seek to be in the smallest circle possible. For this reason, some people who mean well speak poorly. They try to imagine a personal experience as close as possible to our own, and then present it as a ticket of admission to our circle. My wife and I had fifteen years to learn how this works, starting when she was diagnosed with leukemia in April, 2000. As soon as the “C” word is mentioned, people start rummaging around for their tickets.


I have had to learn to accept all of these tickets, no matter how wrinkled, tattered, or illegible. Even if they were tickets to a different show. If one has never lost someone close, seeking to encourage one who has is like a first visit to a foreign culture–one is likely to commit a faux pas.

When we told our friends that Donna had cancer again, the sympathy came like a flood. It was heartfelt, and people went to a lot of trouble to articulate their feelings and their support.  They started to send us money and even gift cards, assuming Donna’s sickness would impose unexpected financial strain on us. They mailed cards and Bible verses. They emailed us. They assured us of their prayers. They posted greeting-card-like photos and poems on our Facebook pages. Some of them came to visit, traveling thousands of kilometers at their own expense to weep and pray with us and help with practical needs. They did everything they could to communicate their feeling-with-ness. Throughout the process, I don’t recall anyone saying something that wasn’t appropriate. My hundreds of feeling-with-ers  continue to be a huge encouragement months after Donna’s arrival in glory. Many have never lost a spouse, so their tickets are in the upper bleachers. But they cheer with gusto, and offer kind words and helpful counsel from their own experience with God’s “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace.”

Oddly, the Greek verb, sumpatheo, “to feel with,” does not appear in the New Testament. Another word, parakaleo, “to call alongside,” “to comfort,” “to encourage,” is the verb that comes to mind when I think of the sympathy my wife and I were called to embrace during our ordeal, and which I embrace now.

All three Persons of the Trinity are said to be paracletes, or comforters. Jesus told His disciples in John 14 that because He was leaving them, and He would ask the Father to send them “another Helper, to be with [them] forever.” (JOH 14.16) This implies, of course, that Jesus was Himself a Helper (parakletos,) and the word is used of Him in 1 JOH 2.1 to describe His advocacy for the sinning believer before the throne of God. As Paul mentions in 2 COR 7.8, the Father “comforts the downhearted.”It is in God’s nature to be a comforter.

The quintessential passage related to comfort is 2 COR 1.3-5:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

As the God of all comfort, He can comfort us in all our affliction. Why? So we can “comfort those who are in any affliction.” This goes beyond “feeling with,” beyond that series of shrinking of circles. It allows us to prescribe and apply the balm of God’s own comfort– wherever it hurts, and in whichever of those circles of pain we find ourselves. Sympathy falls short in that we cannot feel with people whose experience we do not share. Comfort transcends human experience because it comes from a God whose very nature is comfort, Who understands every human emotion and experience, and whose comfort is applicable to every kind of anguish we encounter.

And He desires that we be fellow-practitioners–His interns, if you will–in the healing of the soul.