During the beginning of the school year when I was fourteen years old, one of my close friends lost her youngest sister to leukemia. The day I heard the news, I saw my friend from a distance, standing apart from the others at the bus stop. I could see her grief on her face, and I yearned to do something to comfort her, but the situation made me suddenly shy. Although I had known the girl for years, I did not know what to say or do. So I avoided her. Some time later, after the shock of her sister’s death had subsided, my friend said to me, “I always thought it strange that neither you nor any of my other friends said anything to me when Katy died.”
When our Heavenly Father made provisions for us to become mortal, he knew, of course, that we would all one day experience grief. Painful changes, illness, death—we cannot avoid them. Yet if there is anything more difficult than dealing with these things ourselves, perhaps it is watching a good friend attempting to cope with them. If we see a friend trying to cope with the effects of any personal tragedy it can often leave us feeling helpless. “What can I say? What can I do?” we may ask ourselves at such times. This sense of helplessness, unfortunately, causes many of us to do what I did: ignore the problem.
That we should do otherwise is made clear by the scriptures. Through word and deed the Savior indicated that we must not neglect those who are suffering. Recall, for example, his response to the news of Lazarus’ death. John tells us that “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35.) Although Christ surely knew that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, he still grieved for his friends Mary and Martha to the point where he actually wept. His concern for them then caused him to take specific actions to alleviate their sorrow and glorify his Father by commanding that Lazarus return to the realm of the living.
Perhaps we cannot work miracles in the manner of Christ, but as with all things, we can follow his example of caring. What can we do, then, when a friend is suffering? Perhaps one of the most important yet difficult things to do is to verbally and frankly acknowledge the problem a friend is facing. My friend remarked, “If any of you had even approached me and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ we would have both been more comfortable, more at ease with each other and the situation.” It is crucially important that we do not allow tragedy to become a barrier to communication. Verbalizing sympathy may be exactly what a friend who is in sorrow needs.
A word of caution may be in order here, however. A friend of mine named Doug lost his father in an automobile accident when he was about thirteen years old. Though he knew they meant well, it was difficult for him to hear his friends whose parents were still living say, “I know exactly how you feel.” The fact is they probably didn’t, and consequently their well-intentioned remarks sounded hard. A simple “I’m sorry” would have been more appropriate. Furthermore, Doug felt oppressed by those people who felt it was their duty to get him to “talk about it” every time they associated with him. Once he felt the concern and sympathy of his friends by their simple expressions of sympathy, he preferred to introduce the subject himself.
As important as acknowledging a situation is, it would be wrong to assume that words alone are enough. Though we may truly mean it when we say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” most people might hesitate to ask us, fearing that they would be imposing on our time by doing so. How much better it is to take the initiative and actually do something for a friend without being asked.
I know of one girl named Diana who will always appreciate what a good friend did for her without being asked during a critical period of her life. When she was 17, Diana became extremely and chronically depressed. Her depression was so severe that she eventually required medical attention. When her friend Rachel learned of this, she made quietly sure that she was available whenever Diana needed her. To this day Diana maintains that the phone calls, long walks, tennis matches, and lengthy conversations on a variety of subjects, including her illness, were instrumental in helping her return to full health and activity.
Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that the effects of many personal tragedies can be long lasting. Painful feelings are not always resolved quickly, and it often takes a great deal of time for a person to work through his or her grief. We must be careful not to assume that just because an individual has resumed his normal activities, he no longer requires special attention.
A boy named Stan related the following experience to me. One summer afternoon his younger brother was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Immediately after the accident, friends of both boys, as well as ward members, were very supportive and attentive. Within a few weeks, however, the visits and offers to help became fewer and fewer. Before long Stan, his brother, and other members of the family felt isolated because of the tragedy. A few short weeks were simply not enough time for them to understand and accept the new and difficult realities that confronted them individually and as a family. Continued support from caring friends would have been truly appreciated.
As much as we would like to, we cannot often change the circumstances causing a good friend pain. We can, however, help him to deal with that pain by caring, the kind of caring that translates itself into words and deeds of genuine compassion. Expressing sympathy, demonstrating concern through specific action, and making a long-term commitment to the person in need are all important steps we can take in helping a person we love to accept and live with the circumstances of his or her life.