“Grief is a form of validation; it says the wound mattered. It mattered. You mattered.”
― Stasi Eldredge
Have you ever looked at everything you learned at school and thought, “Gee, can’t wait for the day when I’ll get to use trigonometry in real life !“ I have. And newsflash, I haven’t been able to just yet. I’ve wanted to whip out a what-chu-ma-call-it and tritrate the hell out of life’s quagmires. Perhaps that will prove fruitful. Put in the clear liquid of something you can’t understand and watch it change colour – bring in some understanding, you know? But life doesn’t work that way.
If there’s something I’m unhappy we never got to learn in school or at home, it’s how to grieve or handle grief. It needs a curriculum in this here Africa because friends, folks don’t deal. And when they do or at least try to, they’re told to crack a smile and snap out of it. “Thanks. Oh wow. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s exactly what I needed,” is what probably goes through the grieving person’s mind. Also, it’s me lightly paraphrasing what the cab driver said to me after he ended our ride today. What he had actually said is, “Please give me grace to say this… Madam, in life, we go through hurtful things. We pass through difficult things but we have to be strong.”
Okay. As if I wasn’t. The cab driver had lived through a piece of it when he heard me venting and pouring out my heart to Dave about a (well intentioned) insensitive thing we had just gone through. I was blunt. I didn’t mince words. I wept and raved, I paused and unraveled my emotions, and scriptures that were once blasé came alive to me. But I looked back at him, well intentioned in every way, and smiled. “Thanks. Oh wow. It hadn’t occurred to me. Be strong… IT’S EXACTLY what I needed,” did not pass my mouth.
I was lamenting. And lament is the language the Bible teaches us to process and work our way through grief. Scripture doesn’t ignore it. It gives a rhythm. And it’s not bowtied up and pretty. It’s gutwrenching, ugly and it uncovers every part that needs healing.
My first brush with grief came when I was eight. My grandfather, who was a busy county level politician that I never got to know beyond his strict instructions not to touch his accordion and his stern face, passed away while staying with us. How I got to know this was when I walked into my parents bedroom to find my mum crying quietly on the bed. I think I asked her what happened, but words failed her. And I knew. Somehow, I just knew.
A week later, we laid him to rest. And in the midst of the weeping, my tears fell slowly for a man that I never got to really know and would now never get the chance to. We never talked about it in the family save for a few moments when the lights were off with my younger brother, and I knew to not ask questions. Life just kind of moved on, and I moved along with it or I’d be left standing alone.
Many, many, years later, I found myself at a loss of how to console someone close to me that lost her baby girl when she was a few months old. Dave and I hadn’t been able to visit her and the baby before then, so every ounce of grief was probably shrouded by the dark clouds of guilt hanging over my heart. The funeral was no different. Do I hug her? What do I say? What do I not say? I was deathly afraid of messing this up so I mostly just smiled and was present. And it stung me to my bones – not knowing what to say, or ask, or how to be there for her.
A few weeks after that, I found myself on the floor weeping that McDreamy had died. For those wondering who that is, it was Derek Shepherd, the husband to Meredith Grey from Greys Anatomy. Yes. Yes. Everyone dies on Greys. True. But they didn’t last season, so ha! But really, you’re probably wondering why I wept for a fictional character. Like wept – snot and all – yet I didn’t for a little one that was blood to me that I’d never get to know because death robbed us of her company. Well, I believe I had pent up grief within me and the PS: I Love You, UP, love-of-your-life-passes-away movie plot is my doosie. And Derek and Mer had been something throughout the show’s seasons. So he dies? Uncool. So uncool.
PS: I later found out (last year) that he was killed off from the show all those years back because he was actually cheating on his real wife with someone on set and I was like, hi-five Shonda Rhimes!
There’s a point to all this, I promise. While on the floor weeping, it hit me: I didn’t know how to grieve. I didn’t know where to start or how to carry it. But I would learn. Oh, how I would learn.
And the glass shatters
Sometimes we get to know things without much effort. But when the weight of the knowledge is heavy, you feel worse for knowing it. You miss being oblivious and not being within earshot of something said. You wish someone never told you about the thing because knowing gives you a face. It gives you a face toward the person. And the face is what “woishe” (poor you) would look like if it had a photo, self-portrait or a calling card. And that face is the worst!
You see, I got to know of an old friend’s miscarriage long after I wondered why she was sad. I had known that she was pregnant, and I supposed it was her being moody as hormones tend to be a wave when someone’s pregnant. But then I got to know about it, and I was silent. I kept the face behind closed doors and in person, I tried to make it easy for her though she didn’t know I knew till much later.
Again, I didn’t know what to say to her or how to condole her and her husband. So I was just there, giving her time. Time was what she needed, and I was willing to give it to her. Much as I would have wanted her to let me in, it was not mine to determine the when and how. And I know I wrote here how we need to stop being drive-by friends and be there for people who are going through stuff, but the how is not a cookie cutter, one size fits all. I know of some friends of hers that wanted her to share about it at a gathering, but she wasn’t forthcoming. I suppose they hoped to be there for her by understanding what she went through, and I suppose I did too, but sharing is a whole other journey in itself.
So when I went through my own brush with grief, as the main subject, I understood everything. I understood the silence. The withdrawal. The inexplicable pain and how it pulls you apart in a vortex of despair. The being at odds with God and not knowing how to start or end a prayer but still loving Him fiercely through that. The earth-shattering pain at home with hope. I understood it. All of it. And the scriptures became a lifeline. A reliable point of reference.
Oh how Jesus at Gethsemane was a lifeline today as I vented. Jesus got it. In days recently past, Job would be great company. He got it. Both went through some difficult things. Both grieved. Both were misunderstood in their grief by the people closest to them. Take Jesus, for example, depressed about His impending death while praying at Gethsemane. He took with Him 3 of His closest disciples. They slept while He sweated blood bullets because of the agony of what was to come. Long before that, when He would tell them that He was going to die, they would respond with a firm, “No. Not on our watch!” That wasn’t encouraging at all, because well, it was going to happen anyway. Maybe when He said He was preparing them for it, He hoped His close friends would help prepare Him too. Maybe…
Job too went through the same thing. His closest friends showed up and instead of consoling him, they spoke for hours telling him all the misfortune he suffered was his fault. “Super. Just what I need as I sit here sick, smelly, having lost everything I owned and with God silent. Tell me it’s all my fault. I deserve that,” was probably what kept running through his mind. As we all know (unlike Job did) what Job went through started out as a bet between God and satan. Sounds like a movie, but it happened. God was THAT certain about His friend Job, but the process! Lord! And how I love that his was imperfect and relatable in every way. Bless you God that your friends aren’t perfect!
Scripture was always meant to be experiential and I’ve breathed again and again finding my life again and again in the scriptures. I’ve enjoyed the company and wisdom of many who are anchors of faith, and received lifelines alongside many legends of faith who received the same encouragement through their trying times.
When a wound is fresh and oozing or at the scab phase, it’s best to not bother it. Picking at it or peeling off band-aids isn’t helpful either. But people don’t know this. They say and do well meaning things that rip open what was healing. And oh my Lord, do I get it.
So I’ve taken the liberty to write up a DO and DON’T list (with my very limited knowledge and reference points) of how to handle someone who is grieving.
1. Don’t tell others about the person’s experience if he/she is not sharing the information with others
It’s not your information to share. No circumstance, as legitimate as it seems to you or feels to you, makes it right. It’s just not yours to share. Respect their wishes for confidentiality. They trusted you with something jarring, something they’re still dealing with, so you babbling on to someone else is just wrong.
I know I’ve fallen short of this one, and on the other side of things now, I’m deeply repentant.
2. Don’t force them to share their grief with you
Now, you’re probably thinking force is a strong word but it’s a synonym to coerce. Don’t do it. Just don’t. Everything should be at the person’s pace. They don’t owe you a story. They aren’t being invulnerable if they don’t tell you about it. Are you kidding me? It’s not the loss of a job or some money (both relevant triggers of grief but things that can be gotten back). This is something much deeper and harder. And you owe them the respect to do so at their own pace.
Besides, just because they’re not talking to you doesn’t mean they’re not talking to someone else. Consider that. Sometimes, they need someone who can carry it with them. Someone who has either gone through it or a counselor. And if their grief is at the ICU phase, let them fight for their life with someone who gets it, someone prepared and aware of what will come through the process, someone who made it through it rather than just talk about it with you. If it’s at sling phase, don’t touch it. It’s still broken. If it’s at band-aid or scab phase, don’t pick at it or it’ll get worse. Grief has phases and knowing this will help you make a timely approach.
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My dad died two years ago today. It's different for everyone, but my personal experience is that grief doesn't ever go away, but it does change shape and it becomes something you can hold rather than something that overwhelms you–a part of you, rather than a burden. Whatever you're carrying today, my heart is very much with you.
Grief needs you to enter into it. And by that I don’t mean being gloomy and believing all is lost. It just means that it needs you to understand what they’re going through. Not from your perspective, but theirs. Try to understand why it hurts them. Try to understand where it still hurts, what’s still unresolved, and just be there, really. Like I said, presence, communion, does not imply the need for words.
3. Don’t throw scripture at them like confetti
For many, as they grieve, they spend many days and nights seeking God. They’ve probably combed through scripture desperately. Every conversation becomes a trigger and is a starting point for a prayer lifeline. They’ve probably prayed every night since desperately. A loose scripture may not do what you think or hope it will. It might make you feel better for doing so, but it might not be helpful. Not because they can’t be encouraged, but because they’re looking for now words. Fresh words that will help heal right where is broken.
So perhaps tossing around Hosea 4:6 around the subject matter of their grief (even cluelessly) or saying something like, “Some people wanted to ____ but did not get the chance to,” is not helpful at all.
4. Don’t wear THAT face when you’re around them
You know the face. It’s a woishe, poor you! face, that people whip out when looking at sponsor a hungry child from Africa ads. That face does nothing for anyone. Lose it or don’t approach them at all.
5. Don’t put pressure on them to console/encourage you once you know what they went through/are going through
Don’t you just hate this? Someone’s going through an illness or something terrible, and the world runs to them to encourage them but they also linger for some kind of encouragement in reverse. Perhaps, maybe to believe that the person is actually okay so they too can be okay and not lose hope about the situation. Does that make sense? It’s too much.
“I’m not sure we do a woman justice when she endures something brutal, and we chalk it up to strength. Sometimes people with no strength at all emerge from a horrifying season. They used all the might they had just to hold on to Jesus. And He was enough. In their weakness, He was strong.”
― Beth Moore
Be an encourager. Don’t ask for or expect much else.
6. Don’t belittle what they went through
I was clueless and thankfully quiet through it, but I learned a lot from my friend’s experience with miscarriage. So I’ll share from that perspective. For example:
- Asking someone or a couple why they don’t have kids yet is insensitive
- Telling someone you don’t think they’re pregnant when they tell you they are pregnant isn’t being a good friend
- Telling someone you think (nay, believe) they were never pregnant when they tell you they miscarried weeks later because you never saw her baby bump is insensitive
- Touching a woman’s belly when you meet and asking if there’s a baby in there or following it up with, “when can I expect them,” is cruel (especially to someone who’s had a miscarriage and kept it confidential)
- Telling someone who has miscarried, “Don’t worry. God will give you another one/many, many more,” is HIGHLY insensitive. A life was lost. That’s irreplaceable.
- Telling them to get over it, not cool
- Telling them, “At least the baby didn’t die right before/after they were born. At least it happened early,” isn’t right.
- Acting like there was no baby doesn’t mean your friend’s pain or grief goes away. Yes, it was a tiny fetus, but the body changed in preparation for them. The mother felt everything.
Like I said, limited information here, but I hope it helps. If you’re the grieving one, you will undoubtedly experience this callousness. It’s a crash course on forgiveness. Or as Kristene DiMarco sings here, “The more to forgive, more reason to love.”
Say those words Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing,” as many times as needed during the day until it becomes your default setting.
Wondering what’s on the DO list? I share that and some helpful resources in part 2 here.