Grief and Friendship: How to Help When You Don’t Know What to Say
After her little brother died, Marohn and I spent a lot of time on the swing set in my backyard. We would tilt our heads and look to the orchard as we pumped our legs rhythmically back and forth. We’d talk about everything, from her critiques of my style to my critiques of her penchant for skipping class. We’d dance around the topic of family, and we’d avoid talking about what had happened in June until pretty soon it felt like there was an elephant swinging along right next to us. And then the floodgates would open, and we’d both remember the little boy with electric blue eyes who used to draw crooked hearts and scooter up and down the sidewalk at a million miles a minute. We talked about how he would do his chores to earn chocolate rocks and jump on the trampoline for “exercise” and eat pancakes with mini chocolate chips. And Marohn would cry and talk and cry some more.
I can’t explain why she felt comfortable talking to me—I certainly hadn’t done anything to win her confidence and hear her confessions of frustrations with her parents and friends and teachers and siblings. And yet, on those swings, it was as if her mouth would unhinge, and she could suddenly let everything come flowing out, releasing emotions that had been bottled up for so long that she had forgotten what it was like to live without the pressure.
Soon her life took a turn for the worse. We weren’t just talking about her skipping an occasional class period, but about her skipping church and skipping family time and skipping getting out of bed. Marohn told me that she wondered if God still cared about her after He took away her brother, and then she wondered if He even existed at all.
I cried a lot on those swings. I cried because Marohn’s life was so hard, and I couldn’t help but empathize with her; but some of my tears came from feeling completely inadequate. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t possibly find a way to fix her wounds with words when she was in such a dark place—one where I was unable to follow.
Over time I realized that Marohn wasn’t the only one to have fallen into darkness. She was joined throughout history by many others. In Liberty Jail—a dark, miserable, bitterly cold place—Joseph Smith felt like even God had forgotten him. In a BYU devotional, Ronald A. Rasband explored Joseph Smith’s suffering and God’s response. Elder Rasband taught:
The Lord did not appear or send angels; He did not thrash the guards or swing wide the door of that damp, dirty cell. Put simply, He did not change the circumstances, but He spoke comfort and reassurance to Joseph like no other could: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment” (D&C 121:7). It was as if the Lord put His arm around Joseph when He said, “My son.” . . .
Then the Lord said this: “Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands” (D&C 121:9).
Here was Joseph, locked in jail by the treachery of men, some of whom had once been his close associates. But the Lord made the point so clear—“thy friends do stand by thee.” How comforting that declaration was to the Prophet Joseph; how comforting to us. [“Thy Friends Do Stand by Thee,” 7 March 2010]
There is something comforting in that phrase. “Thy friends do stand by thee.” It’s another way of saying, “You are not alone.” It’s another way of saying, “I sent people to be in your life to support you during this time.”
I realized that even though God had put me in a place where I felt in over my head, He trusted me enough to know that I would cry with Marohn on those late summer nights on the swings. I couldn’t comprehend the depths of her grief, but I could be with her until she had the strength to overcome it.
Perhaps being a loyal friend is less about knowing what to say and more about being willing to simply be there.