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What do you say?

Arvid Huisman huismaniowa@msn.com
Arvid Huisman huismaniowa@msn.com

In an adult Sunday school class 20-some years ago, the instructor asked us students to identify some Bible verses we could share with an individual upon the death of a loved one.

Several students responded with verses we often hear in funeral sermons. I raised my hand and when the instructor acknowledged me I said, “Nothing against Bible verses but when you’re heart is broken from the loss of a loved one Bible verses can seem rather trite.”

I could tell this wasn’t an answer he was looking for. “Sometimes the nicest thing someone can do in this scenario,” I continued, “is just to give a hug and say, ‘I’m sorry.’” The instructor, our associate pastor, seemed ill at ease for a few seconds and then said, “A year ago I would have argued with you, but I lost my mother last year and I have to admit you’re right.”

My father had died a short time before this incident and I was still keenly sensitive to this matter. An incident at the cemetery following Dad’s committal service remains vivid in my memory. After the benediction several people came up to me and expressed their sympathy. I noticed a woman standing a few feet away. I sensed she wanted to visit, but every time she stepped forward another person stepped in front of her.

When the parade of well-wishers subsided, the woman stepped up and said, “Hi, Arvid.”

She quickly assessed the situation and said, “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

I didn’t.

Examining her face carefully I suddenly recognized her eyes. It was one of my high school classmates.

“I didn’t hear about your dad’s passing until this morning and wasn’t able to get the funeral,” she said. “So I came here to tell you I’m so sorry. I remember your dad coming into (our family business) and he was always so nice to deal with.”

Wow! Hallmark has never created a sympathy card that powerful. She gave me a hug and I thanked her several times for her kindness. I was reminded of the power of a simple expression of sympathy again 14 months ago when my wife died unexpectedly.

Cindy passed away at 4 a.m. on a Monday. Around 5 o’clock that afternoon the doorbell rang. When I opened the door I saw my friend, Marv. Marv and his wife and Cindy and I had been friends since we met at church in Sioux City in 1975. They moved to the Des Moines area about the same time we left Sioux City.

I invited Marv into the house. My rugged outdoorsman friend stepped in and in his baritone voice said, “I don’t know if it’s kosher for men to hug but you’re getting one.” Marv gave me a powerful hug and said, “I am so sorry.” We chatted briefly but his first words were powerfully comforting… and memorable.

On a recent Friday, Marv sat next to me at our weekly Rotary meeting. The guest speaker that day was Charlene “Charlie” Kiesling, executive director of Amanda the Panda, a central Iowa organization devoted to helping children and families deal with grief. I’ve known Charlie for a few years and have long been impressed with her organization and the wonderful work it does in Central Iowa.

Charlie told of a woman who had recently lost a child to death. While shopping at a supermarket she saw a close friend come around the end of an aisle and, upon seeing her, the friend quickly turned around and went another direction. The grieving mother was hurt that her friend avoided her. Charlie explained that often we don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving. As a result, some of us avoid friends who are grieving. She then recommended something I already know: simply say you’re sorry. A hug makes that simple statement even more powerful.

When the program was over, I reminded Marv how much I appreciated his visit that afternoon 14 months ago. He lives a half hour away and had every excuse to avoid dealing with me so soon. His simple expression of sympathy and bear hug was a most eloquent statement of sympathy and friendship.

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