Ecclesiastes 3:4 assures that times for mourning and weeping will occur in the life of every human being. This is further affirmed by Granger E. Westberg in his Augsburg press release “Good Grief.”
Mr. Westberg writes, “Grief is a natural part of the human experience. We face minor grief almost daily in some situation or another. To say a person is deeply religious and therefore does not have to face grief situations is ridiculous. Not only is it totally unrealistic, but it is also incompatible with the whole Christian message.” (p. 16)
Grieving a loss or change in life remains one of the most natural expressions of love in the human existence. Mr. Westberg states in his commentary that grief occurs when someone loses someone or something loved. (p. 11)
I would like to say that grief is truly the way people, designed by God, should process the changes that come into our lives. Whether the grief comes to us over a small disappointment, unmet expectation, significant life event or the death of someone we love. Grief helps us adjust our focus, open our hearts to new seasons and come to terms with reality over what has happened over time.
I want to debunk a few myths and offer a little advice to those who walk with the grieving:
1. Time only passes. The passing of time does not in and of itself heal. Without the necessary work of healthy grief the passing of time may do little more than mire the grief bearer down in a sea of hopeless exhaustion, treading water in a sea of despair. Distance from an event does not resolve the loss we feel when it occurs. “Time heals all wounds” is a clichéd response that will not bring wholeness to the life of one who is lost.
2. Grief is necessary. Mr. Westberg addressed this rather of matter-of-factly when he wrote, “To say a person is deeply religious and therefore does not have to face grief situations is ridiculous.” I would add that grief’s necessity is what brings about acceptance and hope in the life of a believer who has suffered a loss of any kind.
3. Christian clichés are not helpful. Often times when we find ourselves in a state of loss people will offer clichés, Scriptures and well intended statements that can cause more pain than relief.
Can I just offer this in exchange?
“He’s in a better place” will not bring comfort to a mother whose arms are aching to hold her child one more time. “God works all things together for good” may not help a woman whose is facing life without her husband and the realization that she has three small children to raise. “All things happen for a reason” will likely not console the man who spent 40 years of his life laboring for a company to suddenly find himself without a job and his pension fund bankrupt.
Sometimes what we say when we don’t know what to say will do more harm than good. Someone who has suffered a significant or tragic loss does not need our “wise counsel” in the aftermath of loss. They do not need to be told to get on with life and move past this. They need to be loved. They need us to spend time with them, to laugh with them and to cry with them. Even in their silence, they need to be heard. And more than all of this they need to hear the voice of God and receive His comfort.
I chose the solitude of loneliness in my despair fearful that the weakness I felt, the pain in my heart would not be understood, accepted or worse that it would cause others to feel hopeless and powerless in the loss. I denied myself a public grief and in turn denied myself a public comfort.
Part of my story
I remember in the early days after the accident being keenly aware of the role of leadership I carried in our church. I remember recognizing others would be watching and taking notes on how I grieved. I remembered not wanting to be a stumbling block.
I also remember not knowing how to feel. I remember laying in my floor weeping deep and long the sobs of death that overwhelm in the throes of grief. I remember not feeling strong at all. I remember.
A few weeks after the loss I returned to work. A friend who loved our family very much and meant very well wrote to me by email one night. Her heart was clear – she was hurting for and with us, she wanted to assist us… Make it better for us somehow. Her words struck at a raw place in my heart. “We need to help you and you need us to help you. What can we do to help? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
My heart rocked and reeled with the words I read. First I thought… What do I need? WHAT. DO. I. NEED? The obvious answer felt cruel. I need my son back. Can you bring my son back? If you can’t that short of that kind of miracle I’m not sure anything you can do would help me now.
I wrote the words as best I could without expressing the frustration that seemed arose in my heart. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t need anything. I just wanted to find a sense of normal again. Something that felt like life again. I wanted the haunting dreams of holding his dead body in my arms to cease and the sadness in my home to lift. Can you help me with that?
A few days later when I saw my friend she asked about my email and I encouraged her to read my response. After she read it, tears filled her eyes. She came alongside of me and said, “If you’re smiling can I smile with you.”
And I smiled. “Yes. Even when I’m not you can smile.”
Again, these are people close to me. Doing life with me who loved me. They knew me and I them. They loved me. More than that they loved my boy. And they were hurting as well.
I remember not wanting to forget and feeling like I could not talk about what happened. And when I did… People landed in all the wrong places with me. Well meaning, good people who loved me. I know their hearts. I know they meant well. But, I remember the pain. The pain of weeping on Christmas morning – the first Christmas without my boy in our home – and a good friend hugging me tight. I sputtered the aching in my heart through sobs and tears. “I just miss him.”
Again, I know her heart. I know she was trying to comfort me, but these words brought me more sorrow. “He’s not missing you.”
I knew it. I had known it. I didn’t need to hear it. I needed to cry and grieve and know that others understood and would give me permission just to be sad without any expectations. I could not say it then. I did not have words.
I turned my grief off in public. Reported I would be fine. And threw myself into work until there was no more work to do. The ache in my heart ballooned when we settled down to move. Life came to a crawling pace and I had a lot of time with nothing to do but rehearse memories and examine the thoughts of my heart.
That’s when I found what I lovingly call “Life Support.” Life support is the group for Bereaved Parents who rallied around me, heard my story, cried with me and laughed with me. They were people just like me. All having suffered the agonizing pain of losing a child to an earthly death. I heard their stories and cried with them. I found comfort in telling my story every week. But, I also found comfort in the Scriptures of the Lord and began to realize that some of the stories were vastly different from my own.
I would cry out to God. “Don’t let my son’s grave be an idol that stands between You and me.”
I would write Justin letters. And pray, “Lord, I don’t want to be in the same place telling the same sad story ten years from now. I don’t want to hurt over this the rest of my life.”
And here I sit seven years later recounting the lessons I have learned from grief. They have an immeasurable value to me. I honor my loss and my grief by walking through the pain to a place of wholeness and healing. And that, for me, came on the Third Anniversary of Justin’s death.
What should you do?
If you find yourself walking with someone through a grieving season, I believe they would want you to know they need to talk about what has happened. Or, perhaps they would tell you they don’t. It is okay to talk about it if the bereaved is open, and if you are unsure of how they feel, ask them if it would be okay to talk to them about their loss or to ask questions about what happened. Learn not to take it personally if the one grieving doesn’t want to step out for a cup of coffee or talk on the phone. Send notes and cards not with advice, but with memories of their loved one and prayers. The Lord will use these words to minister love and encouragement and the bereaved will find their loved one truly made a difference.
And what of those who’ve lost a pet or a job. Those who by their own failure have experienced divorce or bankruptcy. Their season is no different from my loss of my child. (Take a moment and read that again!)
I really did publicly acknowledge that a person grieving the loss of something other than a child has suffered a significant loss and needs to grieve just as I grieved over my son. Their expression may be different. Their season of time may be shorter or longer depending on the loss and the situation. But, they will need to grieve no less.
Make room for that in their lives. Encourage them to give themselves permission to grieve. To ask God the hard questions and let Him settle them with answers.
Grief comes to us each in different seasons and different ways. Our family heritage, faith, culture background and our personal communication and learning styles will all affect the way we process and express our grief. Stand with them in their grief and try to limit your expectations for their responses. The most loving example of this type of friendship is Job’s friends who came and sat down beside him in his grief and said no words, only ripped their clothes, threw ashes on their own heads and wept with their friend over his loss. It was later they came with their commentary that produced futile results.
I remember a story shared in a grief support group I attended. The story went that a woman who had lost her adult son felt such intense pain that a friend recommend she attend a grief support group. The woman contacted her local hospital and learned of a group that met regularly so she decided to attend.
This mother, heart-broken over the recent death of her son, came into a room where one person shared they were grieving the affair their husband had that ended the marriage, another was grieving the death of her pet while another had lost a job and so on. This mother watched these people and felt angry at their deep expression of sorrow over what seemed trivial in comparison to her own loss. She stated, “And when I left that group, I never went back.”
The truth became very clear to me after my son died… I don’t have a file for this. I, too, felt no one could fathom the pain I felt in my heart and in my soul. The way I felt like a part of me had been ripped from inside of me and I walked around wounded, bleeding out not knowing how to stop the incessant ache I felt in my heart. When someone who had lost a parent or a friend said, “I know how you feel.” I would feel a rueful laugh come up in my heart. “How could you?”
I would learn in my three years of intense and painful grief that indeed grief visits each of us differently and as much as I believed that no one could understand how I felt in my loss – I could not possibly imagine the depth of pain others might be feeling in their own losses and changes of life.
I heard people say the days get better, and you have good days and the good memories outweigh the bad ones… But, I also heard you never get over it. I heard the voices of many who said, “I can’t tell you it ever gets any better, but it does get easier.”
I sat among the bereaved, the robbed of children, and cried out to God from my cry… Lord, how long must they suffer? Will I suffer all the days of my life the great agony I feel now?
I muddled my way through the first year working myself to the bone and feeling confused, angry and very alone. And as the first year came to a close I sought the help of the Lord through others who had suffered a similar loss as my own.
Some parts of a grieving journey must be traveled with those close to us, other parts with those who are like us in our grief, and still other parts are simply for the bereaved and God alone. Grief is necessary. Grief benefits. And when grieved well, acceptance, hope and life come once again.
Read the following passage that so appropriately expresses a healthy grief perspective.
You have moved my soul far from peace;
I have forgotten prosperity.
And I said, “My strength and my hope
Have perished from the Lord.”
Remember my affliction and roaming,
The wormwood and the gall.
My soul still remembers
And sinks within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I hope in Him!”
Lamentations 3:17-24 (NKJV)
And remember, though grief will come into our lives at some point, God reassures us in His great love for us: “…He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” Lamentations 3:33 (NKJV)
Look for Session Two on Monday, August 20, 2012.