I am often asked for advice as to what to say to someone who has experienced a tragic loss and I find I always give the same counsel. Simply say, “I'm so sorry for your loss,” or “I want you to know how much I am thinking about you right now,” or “I love you.” These words may seem quite weak in the face of the enormity of the loss the person is experiencing, but such words really are the most comforting, authentic support that we can offer to someone who is hurting so deeply. Most likely you cannot significantly change their situation, but you can give support. I find myself praying for the people of the Philippines who are suffering from the the devastation of typhoon Haiyan. This week, I also made a donation to a relief effort that is on the ground serving the victims there. I have been doing these things, and yet I feel the same way I feel when I say “I'm thinking of you,” or “I love you” to someone who has experienced a personal, life-changing tragedy. “Is that all I can do?” It seems so weak in the face of the enormity of the loss that is being experienced.
A moving story came out this week about how a chapel on the second floor of the only working hospital in Tacloban, the city hit the hardest by typhoon Haiyan, has been turned into a maternity ward. Women are giving birth to babies in the chapel and the nurses and doctors are doing the best they can to save all the babies that are being born. Unfortunately, because they typhoon sent some women in to premature labor, some babies have not survived. Life and death, crying mothers and crying babies, exist side by side in this chapel that has no electricity because the hospital generators were destroyed in the typhoon.
Throughout the day and night, candles are burning in this chapel. During the day, votive candles are lit by doctors, nurses, and mothers as they offer prayers for all who are suffering. At night, candles are lit to provide a flicker of light amidst the overwhelming darkness of a hospital and an entire city that has no electricity.
These candles, like the prayers we offer or the words of comfort we speak to someone who is experiencing great loss, seem little, or weak, in the face of the encompassing darkness. I imagine, though, that the people in that second floor chapel experience the candles not as little or weak, but as essential and as beacons of comfort and hope for their anxiety and fears.
A lit candle in a well lit room or on a sunny day is hardly noticeable. That same lit candle in the midst of a dark room in the middle of a dark night makes all the difference in the world. The same is true with our words of comfort and love. Such words are perhaps not fully heard or received when a person's life is full of love and laughter, and yet these same words make all the difference when a person is experiencing enormous loss.
So light a candle, say a prayer, and make a donation for the people of the Philippines and then closer to home, find a way to light a candle of love and hope for someone you know, either in your community, or amongst your friends or family, who has been hit by some kind of devastating storm. In the midst of their dark time, your little light may well make all the difference in the world.