Around the one year anniversary of my sweet husband’s death, I was reflecting on some of the things I had learned about grief throughout the year. Something so very significant could not be denied...
I realized how absolutely inadequate our society is at knowing how to help someone experiencing the profound grief of a spouse’s death; including the church.
We don’t make room for the suffering that accompanies such profound grief. It makes us uncomfortable; so we want to force the bereaved into ‘being ok’ again. All the while, inside they are screaming, “I am not ok! My heart is broken! Please hear me!”
I know it’s not intentional... we are just so ill-equipped for something so very important. As a society, we don’t generally talk about death and grieving, so people don’t know what to do, what to say, how to act. Therefore, they often end up inflicting additional pain on the bereaved by their words or actions, or lack thereof. We can do better!
NOTE: I focus on the death of a spouse because this is the person we share our daily life with, we’ve ‘become one with,' we’ve likely spent the most time with. When your spouse dies, it changes everything about life... right down to how you eat dinner and even watch TV... you don’t have your life to return to and you must discover what your new life looks like. It’s the grief I’m closest to, so I speak from personal experience; and as I’ve walked with other widows, I’ve observed these common themes, common stories, common pains, over and over again.
The Bible tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). What does it mean to 'mourn with those who mourn'?
God understands just how isolating grief can be. I think He is telling us we cannot leave the bereaved in that isolation. Grief must be witnessed, it must be acknowledged, it must be validated. His love, manifested and revealed through His people, helps carry the grieving through their pain.
The world goes on as if nothing has happened. I know that those grieving sometimes want to yell out, "Why is everything so normal? Don't you know what has happened? Don't you know my husband has died? STOP!" The world is not the same for them; but it just seems to go on, without skipping a beat, for everyone else. That is why they need validation, they need acknowledgement. They need to know that the death of their loved one matters to someone else. They need to know that their pain matters to someone else.
Job 2: 11-12
"When Job’s friends... heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was."
I read an article about grief, that is certainly worth the read, by David Kessler. In it, he spoke of our human need for 'mirroring" and acknowledgement. He told a story of the northern indigenous villages of Australia -- one of the villagers had described, "the night someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed since their loved one died—not just for them but for everyone. That’s how these communities witness, and mirror, grief. They are showing in a tangible way that someone’s death matters. The loss is made visible."[A]
Isn't that fantastic? They are witnessing that the death matters! Wow.
As supporters of the grieving, that is what we must do... we must witness that the death matters and witness that the bereaved's pain matters. Motivated by our love, we must commit to show up for the bereaved, witness and acknowledge their grief and pain - without trying to fix it, AND commit to the LONG HAUL... that means, as long as it takes. [Please, do not start the journey unless you intend to see it through on the bereaved's timetable, not yours.] The pain isn’t gone just because all the casseroles have been emptied from the freezer or because a certain number of calendar pages have been turned. I recognize this is a big job for friends and family... and that they don’t really know how to do it. It is a job that some will not accept... and it’s safe to say that some friendships are broken over it.
Do you have to have experienced this loss to walk through it with someone you love? No. In fact, if you haven't experienced such profound grief, you should be so very grateful. However, even without experiencing it, you can empathize and understand the pain involved. It just means you have to listen harder and really HEAR what your loved one is feeling. Listen to them describe it. They likely want to talk about it... they just don’t want to be a burden. So many times they want to say something, express their grief, talk about their loved one; but have a sense that others are weary of hearing it and are thinking, ‘enough is enough’... especially when their friends have seemingly left the journey already.
How incredibly painful it is to the bereaved when whole gatherings are had with no mention of their loss, no inquiry into how they are really doing, and no reference to their spouse at all... as if the death isn’t resonating in the air. Unfortunately, the bereaved leaves that gathering feeling worse than when they arrived... perhaps even vowing to decline future invitations.
Grieving is hard, and walking through it with those who have endured such profound loss can be confusing and uncomfortable. As Christians, we do not grieve as those without hope; but we do grieve and feel the overwhelming pain of loss nonetheless. And although God does turn our mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11), it may take time to hear the music and dance. Even when the dancing starts, the grieving continues.
What is it about grief that makes it so hard to be supportive?
Why is it so difficult to walk alongside someone in profound grief?
How do we help?
What can we say?
What can we do?
Why do those who say they’ll be there for the bereaved leave the journey?
Why do they tire of staying the course?
Join me for Part 2 where I will dig into these very questions. I will provide practical actions you can take to support your loved one. I will discuss what they might need from you along the way.
If you are committed to showing up for the bereaved, witnessing and acknowledging their grief and pain, and sticking around for the LONG HAUL; then you can do this. I promise - as you are a blessing to your loved one, you too will be profoundly blessed in the process.
One key point: it is not your job to 'heal' your loved one. That is Jesus' job. Yours is to support, to listen, to hear, to acknowledge, to validate, to be present, to hug, to cry, to laugh, and to LOVE; all while pointing them to Jesus.
"A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity."
— Robyn Alsip Arce, © 2021
Psalm 30:11 (ESV)
"You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness"
[A] Our Experience of Grief is Unique as a Fingerprint
David Kessler on the Difference Between Mourning and Grief
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