Tragedy strikes us all. It is a question of when, not if. And so, tragedy will strike those we love, those we care about, again and again. Some of the hardest things we must do in this life is to help family, friends, neighbors and even total strangers deal with a death, an accident, an illness or some other tragic event. We want to help. We want to ease pain. We want to show love. But most of the time, we don’t know what to say or do, and our feeble attempts at mourning, comforting or helping often do more harm than good. Since we are unsure what to say to the person in crisis, we say things that help us more than them.
A gem of a movie, that unfortunately few people ever saw, teaches us a great lesson here. Lars and the Real Girl* is purportedly about a shy, socially backward young man (Lars, wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling), who has difficulty with relationships in general, let alone knowing how to effectively deal with the opposite sex. So in part to get his sister-in-law off his back, he brings his new girlfriend to meet the family. There is only one problem. The girlfriend is not real; she is an anatomically correct, life-sized, blow-up doll named Bianca ordered off the internet. Here is the hilarious scene from the movie where Lars introduces his girlfriend to his brother and sister-in-law.
But Lars and the Real Girl is not really about sexy blow-up dolls. It is the touching story of how a community joins together to help a young man deal with and conquer his demons. At first they laugh at him and his doll, but then realize they are not all that different from Lars, as each of them acknowledges their own quirks and issues. And as they learn to love and accept Lars, they learn to love and accept Bianca as if she were real, for in Lars’ mind, she is. Over time, Lars learns to deal rationally with real people, and as he does so, his need to rely on Bianca lessens. Bianca ultimately comes down with a terminal illness. As Bianca teeters on death’s door, Lars is visited by friends and neighbors in this scene illustrating one of the best things we can do when tragedy strikes a loved one.
“We came over to sit. That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over to sit.” How true those words are – or at least they should be. In times of suffering, we often don’t need to say anything, really. Just bring our needlepoint, our knitting, and be with the person who is hurting.
I recently heard some great advice on what to do for others who are mourning and in need of comfort. It’s called the three Hs to which I added a fourth:
Hugs – you don’t need to say anything, just a simple gesture of love, like a hug will do. And remember, real men hug.
Hang out – This is what the women in Lars and the Real Girl did. They just hung out. People in mourning or in crisis like and need to be around other people; they don’t necessary need or really want to interact with them.
Hush up – Offering hollow platitudes don’t really help. For example, a person whose spouse suddenly dies leaving behind a stay-at-home mom with three children, one of them battling cancer and a stroke, does not really care to hear that “God must have needed him more on the other side.” Whether statements like that are true or not (as if we really know anyway) are not particularly comforting to the person who is wondering how God could have taken her husband at a time when she needed him most.
Help – When you see something that needs to be done, step in and do it. Don’t ask if there is anything you can do to help, just do it. Often a person in crisis or tragedy is paralyzed. They know there are many things that need to be done, but they can’t remember most of them or even how to do them, if they do remember them at all. I have seen persons in time of crisis who can’t remember even how to use the phone. So make the calls for them. Arrange for food. Cut the lawn. Do something.
A final thought. My sister suddenly died when she was 17 (I was 12 at the time) from a heart condition. Needless to say, my mother was devastated. Family, friends, neighbors and church members rallied around us – for about three weeks. Then their own lives took precedence again, and they largely disappeared. We were left alone. We don’t blame them, for life really does go on. But that was the hardest part for Mom – the time after the initial shock of the tragedy wore off. So go over and sit with friends in need. Just remember, people need us throughout the entire grieving process.
But for the grace of God go I.
*Lars and the Real Girl
Production: MGM, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, and Lars Productions
Directed: Craig Gilespie
Screenplay: Nancy Oliver
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider and Patricia Clarkson