At the beginning of the book of Job in the Old Testament, we find the protagonist in the midst of disaster. Job has lost everything, his home, his livestock, his family and his health. When Job’s friends hear about what has happened to him, they seek him out to be with him amid his suffering. The story tells us that
‘They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’.
There are no platitudes here. No hastily put together explanation of why this might have happened or what Job needs to do about it. The friends saw that Job’s suffering was ‘very great’ and they allowed their presence to be enough. They did not speak, because this was not a place for words. They remained with him to bear witness to his suffering without trying to resolve it. In the story this silence eventually gives way to unhelpful words, but it is striking, nonetheless.
We find another example of silence during grief in the New Testament. John’s gospel recounts the death of a friend of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill and quickly dies, and upon hearing the news Jesus makes haste to join Lazarus’ sisters and bear witness to their pain. There is some dialogue in the story, but the most striking part of it comes when Jesus reaches the grave of his friend. The shortest verse in the Bible is found here. It simply says,
At this point, Jesus doesn’t say anything. He simply weeps, moved as he is by the death of his friends and the grief of those around him. Jesus weeps, even though he knows that before long Lazarus will rise from the dead.
But Jesus does not rush to the surprise and joy of resurrection. Jesus’ silence and his weeping is an example of what it means to grieve well alongside others when they are hurting. In what is perhaps one of the purest expressions of the human condition, Jesus responds to the weight of loss and the fragility of life in his silent bearing witness to the loss of his friend.