I first became acquainted with Our Lady of Sorrows as a title for Mary, Mother of God, when I started working for a parish bearing the name almost a decade ago. At first, I didn’t think too much about the name, but as friends and acquaintances repeatedly commented on the gloomy quality of it, I found myself considering this way of knowing Mary on a deeper level.
It didn’t take much thinking for me to disagree with the assessment of the title as gloomy. To me, there is nothing dark or depressing about the fact that Mary faced sorrows or that she is with us in our sorrows. In fact, I find this knowledge incredibly validating and comforting. To be human is to sorrow, at least in part, and no one is spared from such sorrow, including Jesus’s mother. Because she was not spared, we can turn to her in our times of trouble and know that she knows our pain.
What’s more, we can learn from Our Lady of Sorrows and strive to emulate her as we experience our own hurt and bear witness to the sufferings of others. Mary did not flee from her son’s agony as he carried his cross to Calvary, but instead, stood by his side with a gentle, loving presence.
Few of us will have to stand by and watch as our closest loved ones endure the pain that Jesus did, but likely all of us will have the opportunity to support friends and family members as they experience other sufferings: broken relationships, lost jobs, illnesses, accidents, and more. In moments like these, we are called to bear witness and extend care.
Here are some ideas of ways to do just that:
Attend to their physical needs
One of the traditionally understood “seven sorrows” of Mary is the Burial of Jesus. We can all understand without too much effort the anguish associated with burying one’s child, but one of my key takeaways from this sorrow has less to do with the sadness of it and more to do with the care of Mary’s that it demonstrates. She did not leave the physical act of burying her son to friends and loved ones, but participated fully in the moving and anointing of Jesus. In other words, she attended to his deceased body’s needs. So, too, can we attend to the bodily needs of our loved ones as they suffer.
This will look different depending on the situation at hand, but one of the tried and true ways to provide for others’ physical needs in almost all circumstances is to bring a meal. Whether someone is sick, mourning the loss of a loved one, or recovering from surgery, an accident, or bad news, their stomachs still need to be filled, and being spared the effort, time and energy involved in preparing food will both help them out on a very practical level and will support them on an emotional level as they feel cared for and supported by your kindness.
Openly acknowledge their sorrow
At times when I have felt my lowest – mourning the loss of a loved one, struggling with postpartum depression, going through a challenging phase with one of my children – one of the least helpful things I was told was to “look on the bright side.” Sure, there are silver linings to most circumstances, and good can certainly come from bad, but in the moment of feeling frustrated, lonely, sad, or some other negative emotion, I didn’t want to be given advice or prodded towards optimism. I wanted people to join me and love me in my darkness.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive – in the midst of their pain, we want to try to make our loved ones happy, and we think that helping them see the good in their life will nudge them in that direction – but I think that one of the kindest things we can do for people who are struggling is to validate their sorrow. When someone is ill or grieving, we aren’t going to erase their pain, and trying to do so undermines the severity of that pain. So don’t try! Instead, see them where they are and be with them where they are.
One way to do this is to give them a call or invite them out to lunch and just listen. Make a welcoming space for them to name whatever it is that they are feeling. Another approach is to send them a card with an honest note, something along the lines of “what you are going through really stinks. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
Send a care package
Let’s face it, nothing we say or do is going to fix the fact that our friend’s mom just died, or our sister got a cancer diagnosis, or our cousin is struggling with infertility. In lieu of remedying our loved ones' problems, I think the most important things we can do are attend to their physical needs (feed them, nurse them) and validate their struggles so that they feel less alone.
But after those major offerings of support, why not go for something totally extra and lovely? A delicious smelling candle, a spirit-filled book, or a beautiful piece of art won’t eliminate our loved one’s sorrow, but it will make them feel loved – and perhaps give a glimmer of joy – amidst the pain.
On this feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, may we all feel Mother Mary's compassion in our sorrow, and may we strive to be like her as we attend to our loved ones who sorrow.