New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a celebration. A butt-kicking “goodbye” to the old year and raucous “hello” to the new one. After the year our family had, we were ready for both. So I prepared the food, pulled out the games and puzzles, and chilled sparkling cider to the delight of my children.
By dinner, however, I didn’t feel like celebrating. Instead, a powerful wave of mourning. I stared at a table filled with food my family would savor and I couldn’t enjoy, just one of too many losses.
And it hit me: Some losses I couldn’t leave behind this night. I’d carry them with me into 2016.
I tried to snap out of it, tried to put on a brave face. But by 9:30 pm, I’d made an art form out of feeling sorry for myself (trust me—I’ve become quite proficient at it). So with a quick “goodnight” to my loved ones, I climbed the stairs and crawled into my bed to the sounds of my family celebrating. I couldn’t bring myself to join the party.
Not long after, a friend commented on my ability to “shine” in spite of my unexpected losses. A kind word, I knew. One intended to encourage. But I wanted to disagree: If you only knew!
If you only knew that many days I struggle to see this post-cancer life as a gift!
If you only knew that I still cry more days than I don’t!
If you only knew how often I fight the temptation to crawl in a corner and stop fighting for life!
While so many friends and family celebrate my survival, I watch their joy from a distance. Like New Year’s Eve, I hear the celebration from the dark of my room, unable to reach for it for myself.
But isn’t this what grief is all about? Isn’t this the expected aftermath of losses too big for bandaids and suckers? Like a street-level window display, those who grieve watch the light and life of passers-by from the inside. They see the smiles and laughter and sunshine, but don’t have a clue how to bridge the barrier and get to the other side.
Grief is ugly. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Let’s not attempt to package it into something more acceptable or attractive. Like the amputation of a limb, there’s no way to decorate what’s been lost. The loss must be seen. It must be reckoned with.
And yet, we rarely do. When we see the parents grieving their son, when we watch the woman mourn her marriage, when we get a glimpse of the depression and pain of those who daily fight some impossible battle, our inclination is to make the sadness go away. Grief’s carnage is tough to watch. It makes us uncomfortable, and we’ll go to great lengths to avoid being uncomfortable. So we do one of two things:
(1) We shrink back. We avoid extended conversations and connections, anything that would “bring us down.”
(2) We attempt to fix it. We quote verses and cliches, all while pointing to the reasons the mourner still has to be happy. We become Pollyanna’s determined to remind the one-armed woman she should be happy she still has another arm.
Let me be plain: We’re often more concerned about securing our own comfort than offering it to the one who needs it most.
So how do we best walk with those who grieve? How do we overcome our biases and resistances to become deliverers of comfort? Here are some ways you and I can bring relief to those who grieve:
- Allow the grief. Yes, ALLOW IT. Take a deep breath and let it be what it is. Let it be ugly and unmanageable and unattractive. The loss is worthy of such.
- Anticipate internal resistance. Our survivor nature makes us shrink from suffering. And yet pain is one of life’s most valuable tools. Anticipate your resistance to it. Don’t be surprised. Then reframe how you see it. Pain is a profound teacher.
- Move closer. When we don’t know what to do or say, we walk away. Acknowledge this, and then do the opposite. Avoidance reeks of rejection. And rejection only complicates and extends grief.
- Ask questions. Then shut up. Yesterday, my brother called. Halfway through our conversation, he started asking me gut-deep, exploratory questions. “How are you coping with everything that’s happened? What’s it like spiritually to walk through the process? How is your faith different? What’s the hardest part?” He didn’t judge, didn’t correct, didn’t preach. Instead, he listened, processed, asked more questions. And his willingness to dive into the dark places with me moved me one step further in my process.
- Learn the art of empathy. Allow yourself to feel the loss, just a little bit. Like taking a trip together, allow yourself to travel down the emotional road of their experience, honoring the losses by being willing to feel a small portion of their pain. Yes, it will make you uncomfortable. Yes, you might even feel “blue” the rest of the afternoon. Remind yourself that’s merely the smallest fraction of the hell your friend endures.
- Allow ZERO judgment. To the drowning person, judgment acts like a 100-pound weight, pulling him under. I once had an online “supporter” rebuke my grief by telling me I should be thankful I’m not in a wheelchair. I have a friend who lost both her husband (to ALS) and daughter (to cancer) in the span of four months. It’s been two years, and she says people now comment she should be “further along.” A few weeks ago a friend told me she didn’t understand my sadness. “I thought you’d be grateful to be alive.” I am. Every day. But I can be sad, too.
- Commit to stick. Affirm your love. Reassure your steadfast presence. It could take years and hundreds of the same questions and conversations. That’s part of the process. Let them know you’re not put off by it. Try something like, “You can grieve as long as you need to. We can talk about this as much as necessary. You’ve earned it. And I’m not going anywhere.”
What has helped you in your season(s) of grief?