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By Nancy Gossard
Wellness Editor 

Book Review. Don't Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart:

How to Relate to Those Who are Suffering by Kenneth C. Haugk, Ph.D


Last updated 5/22/2019 at 12:15pm

A friend of mine, Gene, died on May 4th about one in the afternoon. His brother called to tell me of his peaceful passing. We had been friends for a long time, although we hadn’t seen each other in person for 15 years. Sometimes we talked on the phone multiple times a week; sometimes a month would go by before we talked. We knew this was coming. Lung cancer. He was a smoker. He didn’t call me for a while last fall and when he finally did, he said he hadn’t wanted to worry me. Friends. What was he thinking? I wanted to worry with him.

The author of this book, Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, started Stephen Ministries in 1975. Even though I trained as a Stephen Leader in 2013, I realized I needed to review grief to help me understand what I was feeling and going through. This book is one of the tools he has developed to support this ministry.

“Stephen Ministry is the one-to-one lay caring ministry that takes place in congregations that use the Stephen Series system. Stephen Ministry congregations equip and empower lay caregivers—called Stephen Ministers—to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”

I read this very quickly back in 2013. I got the book out after Gene’s death and took my time. Its insights are very valuable. I read something in The Guardian from 2018 about a grief expert who wants to change how we see grief and I found nothing new that wasn’t covered by this book, which was copyrighted in 2004. I looked up other current writings about grief on the internet and came to the same conclusion: This book is current and relevant despite being fifteen years old.

“The title refers to Proverbs 25:20,

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,

Or like vinegar poured on soda,

Is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

The book lists the top nineteen challenges that both caregivers and care receivers note and then goes on to use these as opportunities to relate well to suffering people.

The top three issues are:

Knowing what to say to a hurting person

Understanding, empathizing with, or validating someone’s struggles

Talking too much, listening too little

Dr. Haugk states that relating to someone who is suffering at a deep level is a tremendously spiritual act. That…

“Sometimes during prolonged suffering, people think that God has abandoned them. But if they can sense God’s presence and love in you – a person they see, touch, and hear – they can take heart, knowing that God is near and will never leave them. Knowing this is priceless.”

He offers guidelines on connecting meaningfully, following the other person’s lead, focusing on the other person, how and when to share personal experiences, and many other topics.

The biggest tool for anyone is listening, just listening. “The very best gift you can offer a suffering person is a heart full of understanding, eyes filled with tears, and ears ready to listen.”

The book goes through practical things to do, when, and how, as well as what doesn’t work and isn’t helpful.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to my friend, Patti, who listened, really listened to me talk for hours, repeating myself, forgetting what I had already said, and what stories I had already told. My emotions were all over the place and she asked pointed questions and then let me speak. It was cathartic and I have felt better since then. I will always miss Gene, but his loss doesn’t hurt as much just being able to share him with her.


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