What do you say to someone who has suffered a great loss?
This is a question all of us face at some point in our lives. It’s certainly a question pastors, chaplains, and anyone whose work focuses on offering consolation to the broken-hearted encounter regularly. As a trained disaster/crisis chaplain I have been deployed twice this summer to try to offer some help, some hope among those who have suffered great loss. My last deployment, just a few weeks ago, was to Louisiana, in the wake of the flooding that left over 10,000 displaced from their homes. The stories are so numerous and heartbreaking. I will share one before getting back to the main question of this essay.
After our first day of serving in the Red Cross Shelter that housed 350 people, our team decided to survey some of the damage. This is an important thing for a chaplain to do because the folks you talk to want you to see at least a small picture into their loss. Its important to see a bit of what they see, feel a bit of what they feel, smell a bit of what they smell when they have to go back to their homes in the days and weeks after being under at least 4 feet of water. Everything they owned; furniture, beds, pictures, children’s toys, are now covered in a mixture of mud, slime, mold, and bugs. The smell is the thing the folks I talked to who had previously survived Katrina didn’t want to return to again.
I would have been spared the full force of the smell had I not met Keith that day. We weren’t a muck-out crew, they were coming later in the week. We were just counseling and surveying. We were directed to Keith by a neighbor who said there was a man who needed help. We went to the address and found Keith sitting outside his house on an upside-down box; a young man, healthy, but just sitting there. He said he didn’t know what to do. He and his young family were living in one of the shelters. Like many families, one or two members would leave the shelter during the day to go back to their homes and attempt to begin the cleanup. The cleanup needs a crew, not a few people, it was clearly too much even for the four of us on our team to do much else than move a waterlogged mattress out of the doorway, and a few other large items blocking halls, so at least he could get around while he waited for a muck-out team to come.
So what did I really have to offer? I helped him move a few things. I smelled the smell, one I will never forget. And while a team member helped him get signed up for muck-out and directed him towards other places he might get help, I was left with that question, “What do you say to someone who has suffered great loss?”
The Gospel reading the Sunday before I left was about Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. The disciples, fishermen, used to the water, whose livelihood was in the water, set their boat out one evening. A storm came and the waters changed from being a source of life to a great threat to their lives. They were very frightened. In the midst of this, they see Jesus, calmly walking on the water in the midst of the storm. It is important to note that Jesus does not calm the storm right away. He is showing them, and us, something that might help in getting an answer to the question about offering comfort to those in distress. Even in the midst of the storm, even when everything is completely uncertain, even when we don’t know where to start, Jesus is there, in our midst. We are not alone in our loss or distress.
Of course, the rest of the story is that Peter tries to go out on the water towards Jesus, sinking every time he takes his eyes off of Him. Eventually Jesus goes into the boat and calms the storm. I think this last part is a good lesson for the caregiver, the one who is called to offer hope. Before I left for Louisiana I asked for prayer, lots of prayer, and continued to do so while I was there. Even though I was the one ‘on the ground’ it is Jesus who does the work, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, I rely on those prayers when I am faced with situations where there is so much hurt and I feel I have so little to offer. As a caregiver I keep my eyes on Christ. If I survey the situation and either despair or get filled with pride “I can fix this” then I will certainly sink.
I retold that Gospel story many times in Louisiana. In the retelling I got at least a glimpse of the answer to the question “What do you say to someone who has suffered great loss.” I found out that folks who have suffered great loss often just want to know they are not alone. They don’t need me to fix their problem. I can’t anyway. They need me to listen, to care, and be calm in the midst of the storm. In short, they need me to imitate Christ. This brings great fear and trembling to me, as I fall short so often. But again, that is where the great blessing of the Body of Christ being not an ‘individual’ thing, but us together, is such a great comfort and source of strength.