January 27, 2021

The Art of Comforting Presence

Job and His Friends, Repin

Job and His Friends, Repin

Who would have thought that a conservative political columnist would write an article that a hospice chaplain would find perfect for sharing about what it means to do my work and what it means for anyone to accompany sufferers in their journeys of pain and loss?

But that’s what David Brooks did in his wise, eloquent piece, “The Art of Presence,” written in January of last year. I recently became aware of the article while preparing a presentation for our hospice team. I will be talking about how to be with our patients and families in a way that is comforting and that gives them, as Brooks says, “the dignity of their own process.”

Brooks’s article reflects on an essay in Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss: “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned about Trauma,” which I also recommend to you. Brooks focuses on those aspects of the piece that talk about how those who care can truly help people who go through traumatic experiences. He gives a gem of a summary of what we in pastoral care call, “pastoral presence.” His words apply to all who seek to follow the example of Jesus and the countless biblical exhortations to care for those who are hurting, whatever their hurts may be.

David Brooks begins by reminding us that it is important to be physically present with hurting people. “Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence.” Like Job’s friends who came and sat with him, without a word, simply being near and being available means a great deal to those who suffer.

Then he picks up on something I have seen over the years, noted in Woodiwiss’s article: it can be surprising who shows up at a time of need. There is often no predicting who will take the time and make an effort to actually be there when we need comfort. And, we may find ourselves disappointed when those we expect to arrive don’t.

David Brooks goes on to exhort us about the words we use. He warns, “Don’t compare, ever.”

I have to fight this tendency constantly. As a pastor and chaplain, I have been with hurting people in a variety of situations, and it is inevitable that I will see comparisons in the case before me with something I’ve witnessed before. I’ve learned the hard way: don’t bring it up. “Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing.” We might think we are encouraging people by reminding them that they are not alone in their troubles, but what we are actually doing is diminishing them by suggesting their suffering is common and their story is not special.

Job in Despair, Chagall

Job in Despair, Chagall

Third, he reminds to do the simple, practical act of love. “Do bring soup,” he writes.

Fourth, another phrase we should eliminate from our vocabulary is, “You’ll get over it.” I often encourage caregivers to think what it would be like if a loved one lost an arm. Would you tell them, “Get over it”? Of course not. You would realize immediately that there is no “getting over” such a loss. There will be a long, painful, emotional adjustment to a new normal, to new ways of facing life. That person will never be the same again. Don’t dismiss their trauma so nonchalantly.

I will adapt Brooks’s next point and say, learn and accept your role. You might be a firefighter or you might be a builder (perhaps you can be both, though it’s hard). The firefighter comes to help in moments of crisis. Builders are around for the long haul to give ongoing support and to invest in reconstructing a new normal. Neither is less important, both are necessary ways of showing love to hurting people. Accept the part you are equipped to play in each situation.

Brooks’s final point is the big one, as far as I’m concerned — “Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened.” Religious people often have the hardest time with this one, but Brooks warns us off our theologizing with a splendid reminder: “Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.”

However, I can testify that people of faith are not alone in making this error. It is human nature to want to “make sense of the inexplicable.” I have seen religious and non-religious folks alike over-interpret the “meaning” or “purpose” behind suffering to those who are in it, thinking that if they can just wrap their minds around the painful situation and have it make sense, they will be comforted. So we usually talk too much, attempt to explain too much, and think that the right “answers” or “reasons” will dry the tears.

I’m here to tell you: (1) when most people ask “why?” they are not looking for answers. They are expressing pain. Answers cannot and will not make the pain stop. And (2) there simply may not be an “answer” or a “reason,” at least not one that will ever be apparent to us. Once more, see Job.

And so David Brooks concludes his counsel with this remarkable, insightful paragraph:

I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.

“Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). ‘Nuff said.


  1. Some great wisdom here. Thanks for passing these nuggets along, CM. Now…if only I could apply it…

    Forgive me, Lord. I fall short. So short.

  2. Beautiful and oh-so-needed. I tend to forget that many of us have NOT dealt with death and illness and disaster on a routine basis and/or as a profession. A decade of hospice was a gift TO ME of learning how to love, and the specifics of this are in these articles….

    Not much to add, except to use touch, not words, and can the platitudes, even if you know you are talking to another Christian. Holding a hand is so much better than putting our foot in our mouth with nervous babbling, and listening without interrupting is surely a gift of the Holy Spirit!

  3. The best explication of “weep with those who weep” I’ve seen in many a while. When conservative columnists get it and theologians don’t…

  4. A close friend of mine from my church died Christmas Eve; spent the last 4 days of his life in hospice. They handled the pain and he died peacefully leaving a gap in my life and his daughter’s lives.

  5. I have enormous respect for Brooks. In a media world that seems to be driven by the need to drive web traffic, push extreme partisan agendas. and purposefully abandon reasoned analysis, he always seems to offer sensible, thoughtful comments that clarify the issue in a way that seem right to me. And his comments often cross over the established party or ideological divisions.

    I also love that he writes beyond politics. He is a very human writer, able to see and write about a much wider scope than mere political score keeping and strategerizing. This is one of his best, but not atypical.

    Thanks for bringing this back to my attention. I will be chewing on it for a while.

  6. Such wisdom. I was BLESSED to have both firefighters and builders come to me during my grief. Women came immediately and cleaned up for me. One couple brought a hot meal and set my table and sat and ate with me. One man put up a bird feeder for me to watch so I wouldn’t feel so lonely. Other widows then began to walk the long journey with me. I was amazed and humbled by their servants actions. I hope I have learned a bit and have now walked with others through their trauma with a totally different attitude than I would have “before.”

    The most unfortunate part of this is that we in the U.S. have an efficient “let’s get over this and move on” kind of thinking. People are not projects which is often what the church teaches. Once a life has been shattered a new life will be rebuilt eventually but it takes TIME. The gift of Presence is costly and takes a settled commitment. How grateful I am for those who made that commitment to me because they knew that Christ had committed to them.

    Thanks Chaplain Mike for this wonderful post.

    • Christiane says

      “One man put up a bird feeder for me to watch so I wouldn’t feel so lonely.”

      such a beautiful kindness . . .

  7. “There is often no predicting who will take the time and make an effort to actually be there when we need comfort. And, we may find ourselves disappointed when those we expect to arrive don’t.” How to help the family through this time of disappointment is crucial! I’ve seen that it doesn’t seem to matter how many folks DO come, if that one person they were counting on doesn’t come, it’s devastating and excruciatingly painful. Thanks so much for this post! Will keep reading…

  8. Daniel Jepsen says

    Thanks for this, Mike.

  9. This is excellent.

  10. When friends of mine suffered a miscarriage, I went to see them and horrified myself by walking in the door and bursting into tears. I felt foolish; it wasn’t what I had planned to do. However, my friends told me that my crying with them was the greatest comfort they received in their grief.

    I later lost a child and was touched by the almost-strangers from church who drove a long way to sit with me and tell me their own stories. I learned that we are brought together by shared suffering — when we’re willing to share it and not hide it, as I generally do.

  11. There was a period where the expectation of our forefathers was that a widow would wear mourning clothes for a year. That may have been more a luxury available to high society than to working class women, but it was a message about time for mourning. We lost something when society abandoned that.

    I’ve been guilty of putting my foot in my mouth when talking with the grieving. I still remember some of those gaffes, even though they were more than a decade ago.

    I also remember that when my grandfather died, several of my father’s (and to a lesser extent from my summer jobs my) coworkers drove 4.5 hours to attend the funeral. It really touched me. It has helped me decide that attendance at funerals within driving distance is not optional. If I know of the time/place and I know anyone who will be grieving, I go.

  12. OldProphet says

    I’m not a chaplain. But I know death. Most of my Christian life and ministry is praying for the sick in hospitals and hospice. I have sat next to an old friend,by myself, as she took her last breath. I’ve prayed ovr an old man in a coma then received a phone call at 2am telling me that he had come out of it. A young girl with 20 tumors, who died. An old friend, who recently came back to the Lord, telling me how his terminal illness had made him face his own mortality. He died 3 weeks later. All hard, all tough. But God gave me the privilege to be with these people in their time of need. But it is in death, where truth and lifes meaning is brought near, and laid bare and we face God and His real love and affection for us

  13. Just this past fall, I tried to help a couple friends going through what I call “the wringer.” One was undergoing a separation from a long-time girlfriend, the other was in the process of losing his wife to multiple lung infections during chemo treatments for cancer. In addition to periodic phone calls, I would text them every mid-morning and ask, “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being in the belly of the whale and 10 being on top of the mountain, how are you doing today?”

    Because they responded to those texts with brutal honesty, I’d like think they’d tell you they were a good way for them to pass along angst and anxiety and a good way for them (and me) to gauge how they were doing. I told them both that looking back on the history of those texts is pretty fascinating to see the rollercoaster ride of emotions to their ever-changing situations.

  14. I read both the Brooks’ and Woodiwiss’ pieces. All three of these are good and complement the others.

    Before I suffered, I was pretty clueless. So when so many people were kinder to me than I expected, I was blown away. I hadn’t realized how many people had suffered losses. Then, as the losses kept mounting, I got the feeling that people didn’t know what to say because their losses hadn’t been as extensive. Sometimes I felt like I was “a proverb and a byword”; that when people mentioned my name it was as a euphemism for great loss. At the same time, I had friends who were going through the loss of their parents about the same time I was, so I felt like I could reach out to them and know how not to say the stupid things anymore.

    I am glad that I survived the last seven years, and I have learned valuable things about God, and people, and myself; but if I had seen it coming beforehand I would have jumped on the next ship to Tarshish and run away from it all.

  15. ” ‘Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing.’ We might think we are encouraging people by reminding them that they are not alone in their troubles, but what we are actually doing is diminishing them by suggesting their suffering is common and their story is not special.”

    I understand the idea behind this, and I would never try to minimize the suffering of someone by comparing it with that of others. I think comparisons can only cause more pain. Better to be silent than to cause more pain.

    But my sojourn through Buddhism made me familiar with a different perspective. According to Buddhist teaching, to be convinced of the uniqueness, and specialness, of one’s own suffering is to be caught in an illusion. This illusion involves putting the experiences of the self at the center of reality, and making everything that happens serve the self’s sense of its own importance and centrality. The idea that we should want to support anyone’s belief that their story is special or unique is completely foreign to Buddhist perspectives; Buddhism is about freeing people from the illusion of isolated and unique identity, and the suffering that clings to such a perception of identity.

    What comforts Christians, or people in societies strongly influenced by Christian perspectives, might not comfort a suffering Buddhist, or those in societies strongly influenced by Buddhist perspectives. Some of this may be very culturally specific.

  16. I was glad for the wiggle room left in both articles for me and people like me, those who in times of crisis dread the added stress of being sociable with people not already close and comfortable. I can understand that most people need human contact in these times as an intellectual concept that appears to be true, but if I am already stressed out and the phone or doorbell rings, my reaction is, Oh no, now what. This is an introvert reaction and doesn’t apply to people I can relax with. My gut reaction to people in stress or grief is to leave them alone, not add to their problems. I can see this doesn’t work very well with other people.

    These pieces on how to deal with grief and hospice situations are highly valuable for me. Things that normally cause grief in most people do not seem to affect me that way. It may be that I just have never experienced something that would bring forth that extreme, debilitating reaction, and I pray I get thru this lifetime without having to learn it. Learning how “normal” people experience these things for me is sort of like how some autistic people have to be shown pictures of emotional expressions on people’s faces with tags in order to learn how to interpret what other people are experiencing. I think I probably understand post traumatic stress disorder much better than grief, tho the two are obviously related.

    CM, I hope you continue to feature pieces on what hospice care has taught you from time to time. Highly valuable. I’m going to a memorial service this Saturday and feel a little better prepared. If I can get by with just adding my presence and a minimal expression of condolences, possibly helping out in the service or the kitchen, I’ll call it good.

  17. Brianthedad says

    Chap Mike,
    Thanks for this. Yesterday I was with my Mom as we had to make some difficult decisions regarding my Dad who was in critical condition in ICU. That is now over and Dad has passed on. Now I sit with her at their home, many miles from my own, trying to help however I can, while watching and greeting and meeting all the friends who come to pay their respects and grieve with her. I’ve seen the good and bad examples you mention above. I know they mean well but there are times when you wonder why we say the things we do. It is interesting who comes. There is their church family and there is their club family. Both groups bring food, tears, hugs and comfort. One is distinctly secular, but the love and comfort is just as loving and comforting as the other. Your words are timely and comforting to my grieving heart today. Thanks again for this incredibly worthwhile ministry called internetmonk and all the work you, the writers, and administrators put into it. It is a work of love and doesn’t go unnoticed.

  18. Dean Vonfeldt says

    So Chap Mike, are you a liberal chaplain / pastor? Do you assume that chaplains are not also politically conservative? I appreciate that you shared the article just curious why you named the author in a political fashion and did not distinguish your own political leanings. As a conservative Christian chaplain, it felt that your opening statement was an indictment.

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