Grief School Lesson #1: They Said What?

Grief isn’t taught in schools. Most of us learn about grief and how to grieve in the “school of hard knocks.” Baptism by fire, if there ever was. Because we are running around not knowing what to do or what to say, it often falls upon those who are grieving to “teach” those around them what to do and say. With that in mind, every now and then, we’ll open up the doors of “Grief School” here at Dances With a Limp. 

Ready for Lesson #1?

We take so much for granted in our daily lives. A trip to the grocery. Swing by the bank. Make a carpool run to school, the dance studio, ball park, or horse barn. Whip up dinner. We make our way through the day not questioning whether all the players – our spouses, children, friends, and so on – will show up for their parts. We just assume that everyone will take their places on cue.

It’s here in the theater of the ordinary that we are most taken aback when a principal actor is missing from our daily productions. 

I used to take shopping for a greeting card for granted. I can’t count the number of times over the last two years that I fled the greeting card scene before choosing even one card when often I was shopping for several. It is not uncommon these days to break this task into multiple trips because I can only take the greeting card aisle in small doses.

This week was different. I had to muscle through. My sister-in-law lost her oldest daughter, Britnee, this week. I needed cards for her and Brit’s siblings, my niece and nephews. There was no time for multiple trips over the course of weeks. Hearts are broken. Souls need soothing – now.

Reading through the options, I was reminded how inadequate words are for the loss of a child – or a sister or a brother or a parent or a spouse or . . . . Yet, we are wired to say something. Understandably, when the time comes, we can’t form a sentence. We struggle to reduce the unimaginable to a few poignant words. When our minds flail, those nuggets that we’ve heard repeated along the way just pop out. People have been saying this stuff for centuries, right? It must be good?Everything happens for a reason. God never gives you more than you can handle. She is in a better place. I know how you feel. It’ll get better.

They all sound true and kind. In fact, I’ve said these very words at one time or another. The reality is that these “tried and true” sentiments can sometimes sting more than soothe. Let’s take a look.

What does the griever think? What possible reason could justify this suffering?

Everything happens for a reason.

Let me tell you – there is no satisfactory answer to that question. There is no reason lofty enough to justify inconceivable loss. If pressed on the issue, none of us are likely to come up with a reason so worthy that we’d be willing to trade places with someone reeling over the death of a loved one. 

Though well-intentioned, this one stings.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

What does the griever think? What did I do to deserve this?

The not-so-subtle assumption is that God caused whatever loss your friend or family member is enduring. This is an extremely painful thought and can lead one down a dark road of misplaced guilt over what if I had been a better mom, spouse, sibling, . . .

Satan and the sin he introduced into world is the causeof our suffering. God doesn’t need suffering to achieve His ends. Fortunately, God is bigger than Satan or sin. He can work good from anything. That subtle difference causingsuffering and usingsuffering is crucial to someone who’s faith may be rocked by the unimaginable or for someone who is questioning faith all together.

Even when heart-felt, this one pricks.

He/She is in a better place

What does the griever think? No, he/she’s not.

Most of us tend to define “better” as “with us.” Even for those of us who are moved to tears contemplating the joy that awaits in heaven – this is just hard to swallow, especially when someone else speaks it. On my good days, I can acknowledge that heaven need not be an nth of what is promised in order to be better than this broken world and I can imagine what a day in heaven might be like for my loved ones. Even so, it doesn’t make anything better here and now.

This one can leave a mark.

I know how you feel.

What does the griever think? No, you don’t.

No two losses are alike. Two parents who lose the same child or two siblings who lose the same parent or another sibling – may lose the same person, but they do not suffer the same loss. When we try too hard to put ourselves in another griever’s shoes, we minimize everyone’s loss (our own included) by reducing it to “the same.” When death takes a loved one, we mourn the loss of how that person fit into our lives. We are missing that one-of-a-kind space that only the one we lost can fill. Even two parents or two siblings cannot share the same shoes; they can only walk alongside.

It’ll get better.

What does the griever think? No, it won’t. Or perhaps – when?

Even if this is ultimately the truth, saying this to someone who is suffering a death is presumptuous. Sometimes this idea of “getting better” can leave someone feeling as if they have failed (again) if they aren’t measuring up to the notion that they should be moving along and putting this whole nasty affair behind them. Most people don’t intend to impose a timeline or other qualitative measure on improvement but hidden within that statement is the suggestion that there is a time limit on grief or that improvement can be defined and measured. There is already so much guilt felt by survivors (usually for no good reason) that they don’t need anything else to make them feel shame during the grieving process.

Bonus: Anything that starts with “at least, . . .” If you find yourself starting a sentence with “at least,” just stop. There is precious little that will follow that will be heard as intended.

So, what can we say to make someone feel better? The honest answer is “nothing.” I meet many bereaved parents and hear their stories. My heart breaks. My words fail. Sometimes, there simply are no words.

Class, don’t fret. I won’t leave you completely empty handed. If you just have to say something, keep it simple and genuine.

I am so sorry for your loss.

I am so sorry that you are having to endure this pain.

I can see how much you loved [fill in the blank].

I don’t have any words to take away your pain. Just know how much I care about you.I

What words have provided comfort for you? Leave a comment so that we can all learn.

Dear Father, help us to help one another in our suffering. When we speak, let your Holy Spirit speak through us to comfort, console, and support one another. When there are no words, let your Holy Spirit open our hearts but not our lips. Pour grace onto the grievers’ ears so that when ill-chosen words may be spoken, we only hear the love that was intended.

Father, we pray that Britnee is in the tender arms of your Son, Jesus. We look forward to the day when we are reunited with her and so many others in your glorious presence. Until that day, cover us all, but especially Shala, Chase, Haley, and Trey, with your comfort and unfailing love as we await the day when there will be no more tears.

Through your Son, Jesus. Amen!

SDG

Thy Will Be Done

For most of my conscious memory, I’ve had a black thumb. Cacti didn’t stand a chance. Does anyone know how to perform CPR on an air plant? Do rock gardens need water?

Yet, I really enjoy the beauty of nature. Lush greenery and vibrant flowers literally breathe out life to us. The coolness that creeps off the shade of tropical foliage brings restoration. It’s so easy to see how gardeners are transported to another place has they dig through the soil and tend their plots.

Don’t be surprised if you feel this way too. Our souls are wired for garden life. In the beginning when God deemed things “very good,” there we were winding through plush paths lined with breath-taking flora. No weeds. Perfect temps (You can read the details yourself, but no one was hunting for a jacket in Eden). And at the end of the days, “happy hour” was spent hanging out with God himself. 

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