In many situations, there’s a specific Bible verse that Christians tend to apply to the person in the middle of it. If you’ve experienced long-term anxiety, you may have been given Philippians 4 more than once. If you went to university, or moved cross-country, you probably received a few variations of Jeremiah 29.  And if you are bereaved, you’ll be reminded that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted. He hasn’t abandoned you, people say. You know that, don’t you?­

In the culture I grew up in (the UK), we are not really sure how to handle grief, either inside or outside of the Church. That isn’t our fault – we learn to respond to grieving people the way those around us do, we observe and repeat. And mostly, we see a hands-off approach. Brits give people space, a lot of space. Don’t intrude. Don’t make the first move, let them take the lead. Don’t mention their loved one until they do. Don’t upset them.

But somehow we’re also supposed to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those in trouble.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what we actually mean by ‘comfort’. As the receiver, it usually shows up as someone trying to help you ‘feel better’: being positive, practising gratitude, shoring up the shared theology. When my daughter died, Christians reminded me over and over that, one day, God will make everything right. Hold on to an eternal perspective. God is still good. Focus on heaven. She’s in the safest place. And you’ll see her again one day! And your life still has purpose!

After a while, I started to hear a tiny implication, unsaid, in brackets.

Heaven is certain. (So stop being so sad.)

God hasn’t left you. (So stop being so sad.)

You can help other people. (So stop being so sad.)

I believe the gospel is true, but I also know that I will carry grief for the rest of my life, however long that may be. Every morning, I will wake up and she will not be here. And every evening, I will go to bed after surviving another day of her inexplicable absence. At times, the separation is unbearable. The wait for reunion is long.

I’m struck by the way Jesus approaches Mary at Bethany, grieving for her brother. He knows he’s about to raise Lazarus from the dead – he told the disciples so in advance and has just repeated it to Martha. Wouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world to say to Mary: ‘It’s going to be OK, stop crying! I’m going to fix it!’ Instead, he weeps. Even though he’s about to change everything. Even though the sorrow is going to turn to joy in about five minutes. At her point of deepest pain and loss, Mary looks at Jesus, and sees tears in his eyes.

Whenever someone reminds me of the eternal perspective, I think: yes and amen. But couldn’t you weep with me in the here and now? Just for five minutes?

In the Bible, we see the full range of human emotion expressed. Suicidal prophets. Devastated Job. Jesus crying, shouting, sweating blood. It’s OK to feel our emotions, we tell each other. God isn’t afraid of your feelings.

But perhaps we are afraid. In many church cultures, there isn’t space for this messy symphony. There is very little opportunity to lament together, very little time for silence. We can allow brief acknowledgment of painful experience, maybe within a testimony – but then we’d prefer it wrapped up with victory, healing, or transformation. You might be able to cry quietly during minor key worship songs, but you can’t read Psalm 88 out loud and let it linger in the room.

God works all things for good, people say. You know that, don’t you?

Witnessing one another’s grief is hard. It reminds us that prayer is not a vending machine, bad things happen to lovely people, and however hard we work, we are not immune from tragedy. We’re not promised anything other than salvation.

And it’s a terrible thing to watch someone in deep, deep pain. No wonder we try to fix one another.

I was also pre-grief, once. I remember that burdened feeling of suddenly being on ‘comfort duty’, scrabbling for the words and feeling the pressure… What should we do? What’s the right thing to say?  But if we see grief as something to be fixed, our encounters with grieving people will be difficult for both parties.

Recently I shared part of my story with someone and had an unusual response – something like: “Thank you, for telling me what it’s like. Thank you for helping me understand just a little bit more.” I was surprised and moved. And I’ve begun to view my story more like an invitation. Come in and see, it’s real in here. We don’t have to go on pretending – we can be honest about our lives. This is how it is for me, being human, navigating a broken world with eternity in my heart. How is it for you?

I no longer think that comfort is about trying to make anyone feel ‘better’. Without doubt, the most comforting thing anyone has done is to sit with me, in my pain, and be sad with me. Not jumping in with the old phrases, and the encouragements, and the Bible verses. Those may come later (much later). But first, feel it with me, the way Jesus did with Mary.

If we can look at grief as something to be carried, then we become honoured witnesses. We can be trusted companions in the hardest of times. We bring comfort as and when we’re able to enter into the sorrow, not when we’re trying to beat it away.

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted: absolutely. Can we be close, too?