I have a friend who recently suffered a devastating loss. I learned about it from a mutual friend. After this mutual friend told me what happened, I asked "What do I say to her the next time I see her?" The friend suggested: Nothing.
We discussed the pros and cons of saying nothing. On the one hand, I wanted to acknowledge my friend's loss, offer sympathy, and let her know that if she needed something I was there for her. On the other hand, I didn't want to reopen wounds that may have been healing, I didn't want to appear callous by bringing up a topic that, by all rights, she owned, and I didn't want to hurt her.
Some people manage to offer sympathy with such graciousness and concern that the hurting party can't help but feel better. I am, unfortunately, not one of those people. I've heard people say "you look tired" in a way that asks "what can I do to help?" When I say "you look tired," it sounds like, "you look awful." Maybe my eyes don't look concerned, or maybe my forehead doesn't wrinkle in an understanding sort of way, or maybe my tone of voice is too flat. I have no idea (if you do, please tell me!). No matter how hard I try, I fail to sound sympathetic. I even have a hard time writing sympathy cards.
So what did I do for my friend? I tried praying. No, really. (Captain America asked, "why aren't you sleeping?" and I said, "I'm trying to pray for my friend, but it's not going well.") Captain America has been known to pray on occasion. Or maybe frequently. It always surprises me, but he stopped talking, so maybe he did something useful like pray that my praying would go better.
I've read of numerous studies that suggest that people with serious diseases, like cancer, heal faster when people are praying for them, even if they don't know the people are praying for them. This is going to seem like a random tangent, but I'm currently reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (I know, I know, don't groan! Sometimes I just want to read something that is ridiculous entertainment, no matter how far-fetched!). The book discusses a type of science called Noetic Science. (And wikipedia verifies it's existence, so how's that for being legit?)
I've always wondered how exactly praying helped someone here. On Earth. Noetic Science suggests that all human thoughts actually have weight and can affect physical things. So if I think hard enough about your cancer dying, it will. Yeah, I'm not sure I buy that.
My prayer theory, while probably not particularly unique, is more pragmatic. I figure, if you've got people you don't know praying for you, then you've probably also got people you do know praying for you. And if these people are actually concerned, they should be doing more than just praying. They should be making sure your kids have a ride home from the soccer game, or they should be arranging play dates so your wife doesn't have to drag them to your chemo sessions, or they should be mowing your lawn so your husband doesn't have to remember to do it, or they should be picking up some milk at the store for your family, since they'd be going to the store anyway. And, in my theory, because you have all of these people remembering to take care of your life and your family, you have more brain space to think about what you need to do to get better. Because you don't have to worry about the details of every day life, you can use that energy to focus on physical therapy, or whatever it is you're supposed to be doing to heal.
In a nutshell, I figure people who have people praying for them probably have a pretty good support group of family and friends, making it easier to weather life's major storms.
On a plane ride, I read an article written by a man who lost his daughter abruptly to some strange heart condition. He and his wife immediately moved to their son-in-law's to help raise their grandkids. The man said a few weeks after they arrived, the nanny, who had emigrated from a third world country, said "You are not the first people to have this happen, and you are better able to handle it than most." The man said this was a very comforting thought. (Apparently the nanny had that sympathetic manner; I'm pretty sure if I said that to someone, it would sound harsh. It sounded harsh when I first read it.)
I know my friend is not the first to suffer the particular tragedy from which she is currently recovering. I also know that she is better off than many who have endured it: she has a loving husband, concerned friends, and access to good medical care and therapy should she need it.
I'm going to follow the advice of saying nothing, unless my friend brings up the topic first. I'm going to continue to flounder through praying for her. I'm not sure how exactly it's going to help her, but I'm pretty sure it won't make matters worse. For the mean time, that's the best I think I can do to help her.