THE BLOG
12/24/2012 02:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

Coping With Tragedy At Christmas

As an 80-year-old retired clergyman I have thought much about what I would say to my congregation, if I were still preaching every Sunday, in the aftermath of the shooting-rampage in a school that has shocked our entire nation. Following local, national, or international tragedies of any kind, attendance at places of worship has historically increased as people seek understanding and guidance on how to cope. They go to their respective places of worship expecting the clergy to speak with clarity, as if we are creatures endowed with special divine connections when, in fact, we are only human creatures who, perhaps, due to training and experience, have a certain amount of knowledge about such matters that we are able to pass along.

Through my years as a clergyman, members of my various congregations have had to deal with about every kind of a tragedy imaginable. If something horrific happens to only one family -- like a young child dying of a childhood disease, a family member being shot, or a college student being killed in a car accident on her way home for Christmas vacation -- the hurt for that family is just as deep-felt and the search for answers just as intense as those of the many families in Newtown, Conn. So I think I have a pretty good idea of what those families in Connecticut are going through and what will help them the most.

At this particular time, I suggest that we not spend our time and energy concentrating on "why" and "how" the shootings came about. History has taught us that people seldom clearly understand the causes or consequences of something immediately after it has happened. It takes time! Talking about such things as the telltale signs of mental illnesses, gun control, increased school security, and so forth, should temporarily take a backseat. Right now we need to concentrate on how to cope and how to get on with life.

After such dreadful incidents, we need to realize that it is not helpful to tell the remaining members of the families such things as: "Time will make it all right" or "In time you will forget" of "Just think about something else" or "Don't cry!" Saying such impractical and insensitive things doesn't help them; instead, it makes them think you're insincere or naive.

It's been my experience that it is better to say such things as, "Tell me about your daughter," or "What did the doctor say about this?" or "Tell me how it happened." Encouraging them to talk about the loved ones they have just lost is good for them. And let them cry when they want to. After all, life will never be the same for these families. But, usually, as they talk about their loved ones they will begin to remember some really funny things that have happened, and as they tell you about them, their tears will gradually be replaced with laughter and good memories.

The remaining members of these families need to put meaning and purpose back into their lives just as soon as possible; they need to look forward instead of backward. It is so easy to become bitter at times like these, but it's crucial for that not to happen. Hate and bitterness will almost always lead to more sorrow.

Some things happen in life that we never will fully understand. We must come to the point of realizing that we do not have to understand all the "whys" and "hows" of life. And this is where one's religious faith kicks in. What carries Christians through times like these is their faith in the God revealed to them though the life and teachings Jesus.

Christians find solace and understanding by reading some pertinent biblical passages, starting with the prophet Isaiah:

My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)

Saint Paul is also helpful: "For now we see in a mirror dimly ... Now I know in part" (I Corinthians 13:12).

And, of course, we always turn to the words of Jesus: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:14).

And this:

In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there may you be also. (John 14:2-3)

I would deliver this sermon because its primary focus has the attention of the entire nation, and I think it is important for one's religious faith to relate to current events. But I would conclude by pointing out that what I have said, based on my years of experience, is the best way for multiple families in Connecticut to cope with an unexpected horrific incident also applies to individual families wherever they may live.

You may well say that I have addressed the subject of coping with tragedy only from a Christian perspective. That's right! As a Christian clergyman, I would naturally be preaching to a Christian congregation. It would, I believe, be presumptuous and inappropriate for me to speak for other religious faiths. I would leave it to the leaders of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and any other religious faith to speak to their congregations about this really important subject.