Many times in scripture there is not a word in English that adequately captures what the word in Greek is trying to convey. Such is the case with the word we translate ‘comfort.’
In English, the word ‘comfort’ conveys a picture of putting your arm around a person and making them feel better emotionally. In Greek, parakalo is better translated as ‘one who is called along side’ indicating that the one who comforts walks through the tough time with you. It is a word that implies action, and is not limited to the emotional.
In Jewish tradition, a family who has experienced a death is not left alone for the first week. Friends and distant relatives bring food and take turns staying with the bereaved. The family is responsible for nothing, and is not even expected to shower. They have a week to be in as deep mourning as they wish.
Further the ‘comforters’ are not to talk unless the bereaved speaks first, and then they are only to talk on the topics the bereaved introduces. Some people need to talk about the deceased to obtain closure; others need to take their mind off their misery by speaking of anything but the deceased. This ‘rule’ allows the person who has experienced a loss to direct the conversation onto what they feel would be helpful to them.
After the week is over a Jewish person prays daily for the deceased for up to eleven, or twelve months. Close friends may join them in prayer. This too provides a measure of comfort, but also provides a time when the period of mourning is expected to be over.
The point: Comfort involves walking through life with a person. Here the Jewish mourning traditions provide a way for people to participate with the grieving in a healthy manner.
How many times have we felt ’empty’ and ‘useless’ when trying to comfort someone during difficult times? This may be because we were only trying to affect their emotional state without addressing their very real need for human companionship, or even their need for very real help. Approaching comfort as an act by which one comes up along side another and walks through difficulties with them may give us a more satisfying way to approach those we love who are struggling through the trials of life.
(For more information on mourning in the Jewish culture: http://www.aish.com/jl/l/dam/ABCs_of_Death__Mourning.html)