The Lost Art of Comforting the Mourners

If you are an American, you may not be very good at this.

If you are an American Christian, you are likely not very good at this.

If you are an American Christian Parent, you might have reached the tragedy response trifecta, and have inadvertently added to someone’s suffering. Maybe it was your own child. This was undoubtedly the last thing you wanted to do. But you did. I did. We do.

Why are we so bad at this? Why, when we come across someone who is experiencing great sorrow, do we become the spiritual version of the silver lining? Sentences come flying out of our mouths that sound something like . . .

“Well, at least (insert something worse) didn’t happen.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“God must have needed this to happen in order for someone to come to Christ.” (Which is absurd, but people say this stuff!)

It doesn’t have to be the death of a loved one, although that is the most obvious scenario. We also do this when people lose jobs and lifelong dreams. Something takes hold of us and we feel compelled to say something to make this occurrence seem not so bad. It’s too painful to look at for what it is. And we’re not even the primary ones it is happening to.

What are we doing?

Chuck Swindoll tells a story in his book Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns about “a little girl who lost a playmate in death and one day reported to her family that she had gone to comfort the sorrowing mother.

‘What did you say?’ asked her father.

‘Nothing,’ she replied. ‘I just climbed up on her lap and cried with her.'”

Are you blessed with a friend like that? Who can come alongside and just be with you in your pain? Who doesn’t minimize it, or try to get you to look on the bright side? Did you, or do you, have a parent like that, who can resist the urge to make you see the “bigger picture”?

A man named Joe lost three of his children. In his book, The View from a Hearse, Joe writes: “I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour or more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”

This graveside visitor, and that little girl, may not have seemed very spiritual, but in fact, were simply and brilliantly following the lead of Jesus.

“When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him [Lazarus]?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.'” (John 11:33)

What did Jesus do when his friend Lazarus died? He wept. (John 11:35)

This is how I know Jesus is into validation. Could Mary have felt any more validated in her sorrow and loss? Could Jesus have showed his empathy for her in a more profound way than his own tears? Can we set aside our own fears and need to avoid pain long enough to just acknowledge the terrible? I mean, other than filling a freezer with casseroles, what else do we really have to offer?

Scripture is simple and direct in its instructions for these unavoidable moments. Paul says in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

I’ve been there, to some degree. I had two miscarriages. Friends who loved me said a lot of things, many of which were true. The one I wanted to hear was simply, “I’m so sorry.” I wanted the deep sadness to be recognized, to have someone take me by the hand and, for a moment, face the darkness with me.

As humans, we feel a deep need to make sense out of the senseless. As Americans, we go to great lengths to avoid discomfort. As Christians, we feel responsible to keep someone from giving into despair and questioning the goodness of God. As parents, we shelter our children from the harsher realities of life on this planet like loss, disease, and death. Mix ’em all together and what do you get? The worst person to enter the room at your moment of crisis, when you discover your own personal rock bottom.

I don’t want to be the last person my friend, or child, wants to see coming in the face of great pain. I don’t want to add to their suffering! I don’t want to put them in that position where they are having to shoulder their own terrible burden, and yet stop to take care of me and my need to somehow contribute to the situation.

Let’s return to the basics of what Paul is saying in Romans. Join them. Enter into the fellowship of suffering so they do not bear it alone. Save the motivational speech, prophetic word, and speculation for another day. Acknowledge their right to determine their own journey of sorrow and, ultimately, healing. Let’s sit with them, cry with them, do their laundry, and sometimes, just be silent.

Photo Via

Posted in Grief & Loss, Parenting, Relationships, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Which Show(‘)s The Best?

Lady Mary & Matthew, Downtown Abbey

My husband and I have been watching Downton Abbey lately and, as is our custom, we have caught up through the seasons after the rest of the world has already watched it. It came to the top of our list after seeing it nominated for a few awards in the circuit the last couple of years. We have watched many TV dramas of late. I love them because I feel like I can have a deep relationship with the characters that can be developed beyond the two-hour story arc of a film. I am also always drawn to English based stories, being an avid fan of things like Harry Potter, and stories by Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. I asked myself again why we, and so many other Americans, are so fascinated by British aristocracy, royalty and culture. My thoughts drifted to the conclusion that I am not so much fascinated by their differences from me, but by their sameness. The humanity in the people from another time, culture, and class is what draws me in and keeps me there.

Mad Men

I began drawing lines and connections to other shows and making comparisons.

The next one in the chain was Mad Men . We have devoured that show in the last year and are waiting with bated breath for the new season to start. We have analyzed it, written blogs about it, and stayed up many-a-night past watching an episode, cocktail in hand (a must when watching Mad Men) and picked apart the deeper meaning. Although the culture and period differ, one of the main themes is the same thread that weaves through Downton Abbey. The idea that our actions have consequences is so visceral in both series.

I have realized that my favorite shows and movies have that common element. When characters must experience the result of their choices in a realistic way, the show becomes a humanizing experience. As individuals we have a hard time understanding the true consequences of our actions. We tell ourselves a lot of things and bend the truth to do what we want. Watching things happen to people on screen as a result of their choices makes things clear. Stories are easy for the human race to digest . . . must be partly why they’re as old as humanity itself.

I watch these shows and think how lucky I am to not have the cultural constraints of their respective times placed upon me. I stop myself when I realize that we all have those constraints, but we do the best with the time and place we have been given. I look at the character of Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. I scoff at the arrogance and presumption that leaks out of her. I relate to her and like her, but can’t believe what she takes for granted being the daughter of an earl. Then my previous week floods back to my memory and I realize I am guilty of the exact same thing. It took a story set in the 20’s about fabulously rich people from another culture to remind me that I am selfish and I take my life for granted.

Sin is sin. It just wears different clothes; sometimes from the 20’s, the 60’s, or my own closet.

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I Ain’t Goin’ Noah

Over the past three months I have lived in Thailand working as an English teacher for children.  I came here because my number one desire was to do what God wanted me to do, and God’s desire happened to be flying all the way to Thailand to teach at a small Christian tutoring school run by Thais. Well, I have exited the honeymoon phase. Doing God’s will can feel like a punch in the stomach sometimes as I have discovered insecurities and weaknesses about myself I have never considered until now.
The man who hired me said at one of our meetings, “We’re all in a boat in the middle of the ocean, and we’re traveling the same direction with the same purpose. Some of you might want to jump out of the boat because you’re tired and want to leave. But you don’t know how far the shore is. Maybe it’s farther than you thought. Maybe there are sharks . . .” Unfortunately, I have been that person who has wanted to dive right back into the water and swim to shore. Who cares about sharks? Who cares that God told me to go here? I’m beginning to sympathize with Noah. I’m beginning to think: Sure, let the big fish swallow me up for a few days. If it means taking a rest, I’ll welcome it.
In a way, I did get swallowed by a fish. I am sitting here recovering from an illness that has lasted a few days and has kept me from work. But that is beside the point.
My time teaching at this school has not run smoothly. Just because God called me to teaching, I am not the highly favored foreigner teacher who is “gifted” by God in the art of teaching. I have had to make more mistakes than successes, and thank God, those mistakes have been turned into good things. For example, I tried to use a “fun” punishment for students who came to class chronically late. They had to dance with the teacher. The ritual lasted only one week because I could see my late students hated it. One student wanted to leave the school because she was afraid I would make her dance! Thanks to my boss’s wife, she talked to my student, and she was back in class, on time, with a smile. She had forgiven me! My boss’s wife knows how to work magic.
In films like Dances with Wolves and Avatar, it’s the foreigner who learns how wrong his old culture is and how it is important he adopt the new (and better) culture. This concept is only partly true. Though I do not see American culture as wrong, it is true that I have had to adopt the Thai culture into the classroom to be successful. But I have this secret belief that not everyone is a kin of their culture. For example, I believe my maternal grandmother is actually Japanese at heart. But I digress. Almost every student I have taught has a fear of shame that is ingrained in the Thai culture. This is why “saving face” is so important, and this is why indirect communication is a sign of respect (personally, it still drives me a little crazy). And then I met three of my students in my smallest class. They are wild little monkeys. None of the indirect approaches were working. They were acting . . . American!
Believe me. I was ready for the direct approach. I wanted to give them a good spanking! (Still do). I wanted to kick them out of class. Finally, against the advice of my boss, I laid down a little tough love. I told them they were bad! I started keeping score of all the times they did not listen to me. I had lectured them many times, but I had never told them they were bad before.
After that, everything changed. They cared about the “bad behavior” tallies that piled up on the board (sometimes I would add a letter of their name every time I wanted to smack them). After class they still spoke to me, and they did not leave the school, and they asked about me when I was sick. They are still little rascals, but somehow I have gained their respect, whereas 90% of all my others students respect me when I protect them from direct honesty. Some students have even told me they love me.
In the end, I have not made a flawless transition into God’s purpose. I’m like those awkward, occasionally annoying lead female characters from movies like New Girl, Bridget Jone’s Diary, and most high school movies. We watch and wonder, “Is this supposed to be entertaining? Right now I just feel awkward.” Unfortunately, I don’t have an infectious nervous laugh and spritely I-can-shrug-off-all-my-blunders kind of personality. So yes, if you saw me, you would really feel sorry, and maybe cry a little bit. But I’m staying in the boat because my failures open my eyes, and my mistakes have drawn me closer to my students. We forgive each other, respect each other, and consequently, love each other.
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Surprised by Grief

Shireen and her son Will in 1985

There are just clips from that night and the days that led up to it. Meals were being brought to us and we enjoyed them in the kitchen just feet away from the woman laboring to breathe in the other room. I fed her bites from a left over salad from our take out—her last bites of food. We read and talked to her before the pain and morphine was too much and consciousness left her. My shirt was light blue and snug around my swollen stomach. Three months later and I would give birth to a little boy, her first grandchild. A grandchild she had seen on an ultrasound and dreamt about—a child she would not get to meet in this world. Her young body was overtaken and destroyed by cancer. My hand rested on her forearm, he sat behind her talking to her in her ear—telling her she could go and that he would be okay. Her eldest son, comforting his only living parent, his mother, in the presence of death. Shallow breaths and then her last — one deep breath and she took flight. We held each other and cried by the screen out back. My husband was orphaned at twenty three. There was a full moon out and I wondered where she was. I knew she was with Jesus, yet I found myself asking the sort of questions that children ask: But where is heaven?

Mother & son dance during our wedding, January 2005

Our community was there for us; they brought us meals and asked us how we were. But I remember when it all stopped. People stopped reaching out, yet the grief was not gone. I realized at that time that I had viewed grief as an event, with a beginning and an end. Yet this was not what I was experiencing. It was more like the ocean with waves and tides that come in and go out, never really ending, but coming and going. It took me a while to be able to formulate that idea of grief. Initially I interpreted the absence of people asking us how we were as, I am supposed to be over this. I certainly knew that this was not the case— neither of us were over it. We still got on with our lives but the effects were present. The sadness would still come. But now it was sadness compounded with loneliness and the idea that everyone thought we were fine. I came to the conclusion that either people did in fact think we were done grieving and no longer needed to process through it, or they simply had forgotten. Either way I did not blame them. I had been them. I decided that I wanted to try and be sensitive to the people in my life who had lost loved ones and the reality that even years later the grief has not ended.

Six years has passed since my mother-in-law died. There are times that I am still surprised by grief. It sneaks up on me like how the waves rush onto the shore. It comes at all times, in the quiet moments of my day, a song on the radio or a joyous event in our lives. The nature of my grief has changed. At first it was sadness over the loss of her. Now it is sadness over what she has lost as I experience life with her son and her grandchildren. In every one of my children’s “firsts” there will be always be an element of sadness. The reality that there is someone who wanted for her whole life to be a part of that moment and simply is not.

I am okay with this reality. I have embraced those sad moments. The embarrassment that first would come over me as I cried in grocery store parking lots has been replaced with a welcoming. Embracing pain is not something that we do well as a culture, yet it is one of the most healthy ways to approach pain and possibly the only way out of it. When the tears come I let them, knowing that they will pass. They certainly will come again but I am finally okay with that. The loss is part of our life, along with the joy.

Posted in Family, Grief & Loss, Health & Fitness | 3 Comments