Grief Is A Long Journey
Spring is a wonderful time, a time of renewal and promise. The signs of Spring are everywhere as one season releases itself to another. For the grieving, the seasons are almost unnoticeable for in sorrow, one seems to be observing life instead of really living it. As time drags on, birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions bring back the sting of death and remind us all too effectively of the one missing, teaching us again of our own mortality.
The book of 2 Corinthians opens and closes with mentions of comfort. How do we comfort the grieving? What can possibly be said to a parent whose child has committed suicide? To a godly man or woman who has suddenly lost a mate of many years? To those who lose children either by accident, illness, or an interrupted pregnancy? To those whose mates have Alzheimers and although they are adequately cared for in a chosen facility, the grieving process has al-ready begun? To the chronically or terminally ill?
When we comfort others, or others comfort us, it is God working through us to do his will. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says, "God is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in, all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Some time ago, the one leading our thoughts at the Lord's table spoke of angels ministering unto Jesus after he prayed in the garden. It struck me then how we too, have been ministered to by angels, in being the recipients of so many encouraging and helpful acts since the very sudden death of our daughter Jill.
Our God Specializes in Comfort
As many of you know, our only daughter collapsed after a volleyball game early in her sophomore year at Florida College, due to the hemorrhage of a malignant brain tumor. At that time her father was teaching in Romania. Just before Frank left for Romania, many prayers were offered for his protection and for our family with special mention being given to Jill since she was still young and needed her father's counsel. After her sudden death, I remember wondering why God chose not to answer this prayer. It occurred to me sometime later that protection doesn't always mean life. Jill has been protected from having to suffer many things. But, in our grief, we at first can focus only on our pain. The grieving need time to think, to discuss, to pray, and to wonder why without being misunderstood.
Allow the Expression of Sorrow or Frustration
Grief will only be prolonged if held in and more serious problems may surface. Denying we are grieving may impress others, but hidden grief usually manifests itself in other, sometimes more serious, ways. Writing to a pen pal who knew of our situation but was not a close family friend was very beneficial to me. She listened to all my agonies and frustrations and wisely made comforting comments, offering no solutions and refraining from reminding me how it could have been worse. Telling us how blessed we are only increases guilt feelings, for, in the early stages, we are operating strictly on emotion instead of logic. Another friend diligently called me to see what kind of day I was having. One day she said, "Joyce, I don't know what you're going through, but I won't let you go through it alone." How special those words were and still are.
Sorting Out the Emotions
of Grief is a Challenge!
Anger, fear and sadness add up to a lot of stress. Responses are some-times unpredictable. One of our sons recently told me he had not shed tears in quite a while, but just recently while leading the invitation song, the tears came and he thought, "Now where did that come from?" Please understand that tears may not always be for the lost loved one, but emotion expressed through tears tears of gratitude, empathy, or just being overwhelmed with the care and concern of others. An emotional response may even be triggered by someone offering condolences but one should not feel guilty for having "caused" a response. Tears are such a wonderful cleansing relief, but we seem to be afraid of them.
Great care must be taken, however, to save the griever public embarrassment, if possible. Especially when the grief is fresh, avoid asking, "how are you really?" It's very beneficial to be able to ventilate, but the griever must be able to choose the time and the duration. Make short, kind comments, realizing that especially at first, timing is important. If you receive a cheery response from the griever, accept it as a time when they prefer to look at things positively. It is important, however, that this one knows you will take the time to listen whenever he or she is ready. Listen and avoid preaching, recognizing that there are times when it's just not possible to smile and say "fine" when asked, "How are you?" That is actually a very stinging question to the newly grieved, and I'm trying to train my-self to avoid that question, substituting something more positive that requires no response. "It's so good to see you. I'm so glad you were able to come. You look great!
Think twice about saying, "I know how you feel." Do you really? Have you lost a child? mate? parent? One well meaning person told Frank that he knew what it was like to lose a child, for he could read about David in the Bible. We had read about David too, but that doesn't begin to compare with losing our own child. Our parenting had come to an abrupt halt when Jill died. In our grief, we also mourned for ourselves for the things that will never be. We cannot possibly have a full understanding of a situation until we have been there. As many times as I have heard my dad speak of World War II and the time he spent in Germany separated from his family, I still have only a slight idea of what he went through while in the service. There is no timetable for grief. We cannot and have no right to insist that someone grieve on our schedule. Many give the impression that after a given amount of time we should be over this! Grief should not be an occupation, but neither does it mean we will never think of the deceased again.
Some of our family asked how it made us feel to hear Jill's name mentioned. Don't we usually like to hear our children mentioned? It warmed our hearts to receive so many cards and letters, especially those who mentioned Jill's influence on them in a special way, or some kind thing she had done. We found that the most lasting and touching comfort came from those who were not afraid to briefly express their grief to us ... openly and honestly.
Reminders of the deceased do not always bring sorrows. Some things bring smiles and joy. The strains of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" have been used on countless television commercials in the last couple of years, as have portions of the William Tell Overture. As assistant drum major her senior year, Jill directed parts of "Appalachian Spring" on field with the Lakeland High marching band, as well as performing the William Tell Overture with the concert band. Certain music will always remind us of her and her talent.
Whether we are dealing with the grief of illness or death, our own attitudes about death and dying reflect our ability to help others. It's relatively easy to say a few words about prayer and the hope of heaven, but it takes courage to listen, really listen. I became painfully aware of how inadequate we usually are in this area. Frank and I found it very beneficial to attend a seminar for the grieving, for we were all grieving together and did not feel inhibited in expressing our feelings to those around us. In addition, I stay in touch with some other mothers who have lost children. This is how the organization known as "Compassionate Friends" originated. In reality, all Christians should be known as compassionate friends.
Timothy Kenny, in his book, Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome* states "ignorance and fear are simply not good enough excuses for turning your back on other people when they need you most. Friends made uncomfortable by tragedy miss the opportunity to do good for themselves as well as for those suffering loss. We should all make the effort to step across the line of discomfort, reach out to someone who might be alone in their circumstances. It can make a world of difference for the person in need and might really make you feel good about yourself."
In the spring of 1994, after Jill died in September of 1993, we lost several older members at the congregation where we worship. One in particular was very difficult, in that she had suffered a series of "medical complications" that compounded rather that alleviated problems. We knew and she knew that she was going to die. This wonderful woman made it easy for those around her to comfort her. One young Christian worked at the hospital and had many opportunities to visit with and pray with her. The knowledge and comfort gained from this experience was invaluable to both parties, but never would have taken place without the courage of the young Christian. Another member recently developed cancer. Instead of withdrawing and feeling sorry for herself, she kept us all informed of her progress, explaining sometimes in detail the medical procedures that were being used and the hope for recovery. Her expression "either way, it's going to be fine" was an uplifting light to many of us. Hope was abundant, a joy for us and a wonderful aid to a speedy recovery. She has just received word of her clean bill of health.
When we are uneasy about what to say (and at some time, we all are) don't say anything. Just be there. The most important thing we can bring to our friends is ourselves. Our presence will speak volumes. Perhaps the day will come when we can speak of death and dying with the same ease as other phases of life. We who are grieving can help those around us to accomplish that ease, by being gently verbal about our losses, and as we speak, help others to understand. We will always have the ill and the grieving. In order to heal, they need to speak. Will we listen? They'll need to be heard ... will we turn away?
*Timothy Kenny, Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Thunders Mouth Press (New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1994).
Guardian of Truth XL: 10 p. 16-17