Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How do we mourn with those that mourn?

When Mormons are baptized, we enter into a covenant with God to keep His commandments and to remember the Savior. Part of what that covenant means is captured in some verses from the Book of Mormon: we should be "willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:8-9).

So aside from the rather obvious feeling sad at funerals for families who have lost loved ones, what does this passage really mean? Especially in our often self-reliant attitude, how do we bear one another's burdens? How do we comfort those who stand in need of comfort?

These questions came to mind as I read the third part of an interesting series on clinical depression over at the By Common Consent blog. Some of the commentary there points out that sometimes we are better at mourning and offering comfort when the need for it is in the past tense, and I wondered why that is.

I have some ideas of my own, and would be interested in your experience.

Sometimes when we see someone else in an emotionally difficult place, we turn away because we do not want to embarrass the person who is hurting.

Sometimes we simply do not know what to say.

Sometimes we believe that we are respecting a person's privacy by not intruding.

It is interesting to me that it often easier for us to offer help when someone is physically ill than when there is emotional pain or mental illness. I wonder if this distinction is cultural (and broader than our Mormon culture). In any case, I believe it is often easier for us to drop off a casserole than to lend a listening ear. And why not? For the giver, the dropping off a tangible show of support is much less risky than an offer to listen. (The offer to listen might be rejected; if the casserole is tossed into the garbage, we'll never know.) Offering a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear is also a much larger investment of time and emotional energy, beyond the risk of rejection – we don't know how long the support will be required, and we often don't know what to say.

In my limited experience, however, I can say this: Often we don't need to say anything. Often we just need to listen. And while it may be difficult to get someone to talk (especially men), if we can engage the person who needs support in an activity that would allow for conversation on the side (weeding the garden, knitting booties, tying quilts), it might make the conversation less forced. Just listening without solving anything is hard to do, and it's a skill worth learning when trying to comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

I have a friend who sometimes stops me, looks me in the eye and says, "How are you?" I know he doesn't mean "how's it going today?" He really wants an answer. Now if every acquaintance did that to me, I might be a little freaked out, but having this friend ask me sincerely from time to time is touching. And I know if I'm having a rough time, I can tell him.

As I said above, I'd be interested in your experience. How have you mourned with those that mourn? How has someone comforted you when you stood in need?


  1. I can offer some advice about what not to do, which, I think, given the timing of my experiences, is probably best suited to teenagers:

    1. Don't ambulance chase. When I was 15, my mom was in a coma for awhile (she's since recovered and is living normally, albeit with care). All of a sudden, kids I'd never really been friends with in school, kids who'd tormented me, were my "best friends". They were just "so upset" that I was going through this horrible experience. I became, for a select segment of the school's population, an excuse--people couldn't hand in papers on time, or whatever, because they were just so traumatized for me, and so busy helping me. Would that that had been true. I think, particularly for kids, it's tough to connect someone else's experience with your own; kids can be a little voyeuristic, if for no other reason than that experiencing something through someone else's eyes--however disingenuously--can be a way to experience it safely.

    2. Don't tell me what you'd do in my situation. After my dad died (I was 18), I got a flood of sympathy notes, cards, and letters. Most were genuinely nice; I still have a box of them in my closet to this day, although I haven't looked at it in years. However, one girl sent me a five page letter describing how happy she'd be if her dad would only die, and how she'd throw a huge party. I couldn't believe it.

    3. Don't worry that you're not close enough to someone to reach out. While my mom was sick, this one girl I went to school with, who was really my nemesis for four years, took me home with her for the afternoon after school one day; we studied together, she baked me cookies, we talked about what was going on. While my mom was sick, she was really nice to me. Despite the fact that, once my mom was better again, she pretty much went back to being my nemesis, I still remember her as one of the best friends I had in high school.

    4. Pay it forward. I had the opportunity, a few years later, in law school, to repay this kindness when a classmate's aunt (who in her case had been a primary parent) was dying of breast cancer. I took her into our home, cooked for her, helped her with laundry, etc. It didn't make us become best friends, but she told me that, later, she'd really appreciated it.

    5. Don't judge how long it takes for people to get over things. My dad died awhile ago now, but every time a major life milestone rolls around, I miss him. I've actually had people tell me I should be "over it" by now, and question when I was going to stop being such a baby. Don't do that. Everybody's life experience is different, and you can't know what it's like to be in someone else's shoes.

  2. CJ,

    Thanks for this comment. I especially liked #5. You're right: we don't know one another's timetables. Sometimes we don't even know our own!

    Sounds like you carried your share of burdens in your HS years. Sorry for that.