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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One More Mile

This morning, I overhead some crazy talk. One of the the girls at physical therapy said, “I had the urge to go on a run last night.” Yeah, you heard right. Then, she proceeded to explain that “a run” meant six miles. You may be one of those people who loves to run. I am not. Every fiber of my being resists “the urge.” 

Still, there was that one time.

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It’s All So Puzzling

Imagine the scene (and you can because you’ve been there) – First, you dump all of the pieces out of the box onto the table. If there are any pieces that remain joined from the factory, you have to tear them apart. Then, you begin the process of putting it all back together. Find the four corners and all of the edges. (Don’t cha hate when that one middle piece with a nearly straight side gets mixed in with the real edges.) Separate the remaining pieces based on color and/or where you think they fit into the overall picture.

Doesn’t life often feel a lot like working on a 5,000-piece puzzle without a box top and with six similar pieces from an unrelated puzzle mixed in? Sometimes, I feel like God has dumped thousands of puzzle pieces in my lap. Taken a few out. Added a few that don’t belong. And, expects me to put it all together without any reference. It’s worse than one of those solid color puzzles. You know the one where thousands of pieces come together to form the solid white or yellow or blue square that graces the top of the box. 

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You Say It’s Your Birthday

Funny thing before we delve into this week’s blog – first, I’m late again. Thankfully, I might be the only one keeping track. Second – I’m early. Yep, this is the blog that I had in mind for next week – when my daughter, Megan, turns 21. Due to a twisted turn of events – namely that I am wholly unable to keep proper track of time these days – I present next week’s blog this week:

Do you remember what you did for your 21st birthday? Or your 18th? 10th? 30? 50? – pick your milestone poison. You likely have fond memories of that day, unless you landed in jail, in which case I hope enough time has passed that you can look back and laugh.

What if something worse (much worse) than jail happened on your birthday?  My mother’s oldest brother, Mike, died of a heart attack – on his daughter’s birthday. Yes, there isn’t much worse that can happen on your birthday than for your dad to die of a heart attack.  It’s awfully hard after that to look forward to another birthday much less ever to look upon that particular day with anything other than heartbreak. Or is there?

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Half-hearted

My daddy gave me a pair of gloves for Christmas 2000. There was nothing special about them. Just a simple (but warm) pair of black gloves with fleece lining. Two months later, my daddy was diagnosed with lung cancer – aggressive and sinister. By the time the cancer was detected, it was too late. Two months after his diagnosis, he passed away at age 56.

All of a sudden, those Christmas gloves became special. Seriously, I placed so much emphasis on those gloves as the last little connection between me and my daddy. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have placed so much importance on something physical and fleeting, but I did. So, you can just imagine how sick I became when the gloves became separated. 

At first, I didn’t believe one was lost. I was convinced that I would find the missing glove. Time passed. No reunion. More time passed. Still no reunion. 

Years went by. Yes, I carried the found glove around for years.

I slowly became to accept that perhaps, the gloves would not be together again as soon I would have hoped and I might have to learn how to survive with just the one glove. It’s the same realization that slowly settles into your bones after losing someone you love. Like gloves work better in pairs, the heart works better whole. Yet, you come to learn how to survive half-hearted.

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Half-Way Home

Until last year when my husband and I moved to Minneapolis, I had never lived more than a few hours from “home” – meaning the place where I was born and raised. To be honest, Minneapolis would have been pretty far down a list of choice relocations. No offense to Minnesota, but locales like Key West, San Diego, or Honolulu would have been more prominent in my imagination. Those were not options.

So, I suited up with my best “let’s-make-the-best-of-it” attitude and bought a heavy coat and a pair of snow boots. Confession – my “let’s-make-the-best-of-it” attitude was really more of a “let’s-get-through-this-as-quickly-as-possible-and-get-back-home” attitude until I received a great piece of advice from someone who had moved around a lot – “Make Minneapolis home.” Essentially, make friends and build relationships even though you know that you may not have all of the time you’d like to build those relationships fully. Read more