By Deb Sewell
[Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles leading up to our annual Hope for the Holidays service on Thursday, November 21. We hope you'll join us that night at 7:00 p.m. in the Sanctuary for this special and memorable service.]
This time of year a gentle or not so gentle tug seems to invite us to consider the course of direction we are on, the shifts and perhaps the losses we have experienced in previous months. Such was the topic of conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago. She mentioned although she is moving into her fourth decade of living, she had not experienced a substantial loss resulting in deep grief and mourning; hadn’t lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, or even a dear friend. She went on to say she had a friend who’s mother had died and she wanted to drop by for a visit, but didn’t have any idea how her friend felt. She asked me what grief felt like and I responded with a quote from a book I’d recently read: “I walked as if underwater, slogging through a swamp of molasses, with my arms and my legs having weights tied to them. I sat. I stared. For hours.” (From "A Walk Through a Churchyard," the story of an Episcopal priest grieving the death of his wife.)
The priest's description resonated with me so deeply. I often tell people it’s like swimming through a sea of Vaseline. You can see vaguely what’s happening around you, but nothing focuses clearly. It's as though you’re living in a bubble, hearing comments, seeing faces, watching lips move, but nothing can really touch you because you’re so numb but aching with pain at the same time and it can even hurt to be touched. I’ve also heard it described as wearing a tight fitting pair of shoes that hurt your feet. Just as you can think of nothing but your feet hurting, and getting out of those tight-pinching shoes, so it is with grief; you can think only of your pain and wondering when it will stop. You want to get out of it, longing to be comfortable again.
Try to envision those grieving a recent loss (a year or less) as though they were in a full body cast resulting from a horrible accident. After describing these sensations of grief to my friend, I asked her how that made her feel and asked that she multiply it by a thousand times and she might have an idea how it feels when someone is grieving a deep and significant loss. She then asked how she could be of help to her friend. Here is what I told her:
First of all, when in their presence, be willing to ask about their loss. We’re often tempted to talk about anything but their loss, thinking they need distraction from it. Most often, they want to talk about it. Invite them to tell their stories: “I’d like to hear more about the day she (say their name) died…” … “If you are willing, would you say more about your dad’s (use the name) funeral” … "Can you tell me more about the day the plane went down?” (The tornado hit your home, the marriage ended, job was lost, etc). Then be willing to listen.
I believe when Christians actively listen to one another, especially when one is grieving, it is a sacred, holy space that moves listening to a means of grace. If you have a pleasant memory to share, offer to share it, as those grieving receive comfort from such memories. Though you may see a tear run down a cheek, they are often longing to tell the story again and again of "how it happened," and it plays a significant role in their healing. Telling their stories again and again helps clarify in their minds the ambiguity and unwieldiness of loss, and questions are often answered for them as they tell and re-tell their stories - with "ah ha" moments. You may hear them say, “I really hadn’t thought of that until this very minute!”
Actively listening requires no answers from you. None; most especially when they come to the "whys" (as we discussed in last week’s article). It is not our responsibility to offer them the answers to the "whys" even when they look at you and ask it repeatedly. If you feel they are truly looking to you for an answer, just encourage them that God is very comfortable with our questioning "why" and invite them to maintain their continuing dialogue with God. It's okay to tell them you don’t have the answers. What is required of you is your courage to be there, fully present, knowing there isn’t anything you can say or do to make this better, other than simply offering your tenderness and compassion without advice, clichés or metaphors… and praying for them. Your companionship reminds them that God is walking with them. 2nd Corinthians 1:4 tells us that God comforts us in our all troubles so that we may comfort others.
# # #