A Grief Misunderstood

They got the foldaway crib.

Although not wealthy, they spared no expense for their soon-to-arrive little boy. Anticipation increased with every passing day. Would she be a good mother? Would he be the father he never had? With fixed smiles and sweaty hands, they counted down the days until heaven’s snowflake would fall into their arms.

Days before the due date, they received a call no one expected. She would have to give birth to a lifeless child.

Within 48 hours, we huddled into a chilled funeral home in the middle of a snowstorm. As the small shoebox-sized casket was brought out and placed before the congregation, wails, the kind a non-American might make, threatened to knock down the paper-thin walls. For his wife’s sake, the husband tried his best to keep some semblance of composure. The precipitation inside was more biting than the ice storm without.

Miserable Comforter

“From the moment we buried our son that day,” the husband said in an expressionless tone a month later, “some of our friendships went down into the hole with him.” Things had changed. People did not know how to interact with them like before. Some gave them acres of space. Others raided their refrigerator magnets for platitudes to drop as they hurried past the uncomfortable scene. “We have never felt more alone than when we needed our friends the most,” he sighed.

They knew it wasn’t malicious. Many wanted to be helpful, but they also didn’t want to make their suffering worse by doing or saying the wrong thing. Serious injuries are attended by doctors, not civilians. They were not trained to handle such situations.

That is how I thought about it, at least. I struggled to know what to do. Should I bring it up and risk twisting the knife? Would their soul-wound heal better when left to itself? I had suffered, as we all must, but I never experienced this form of pain. What did I have to offer them? I couldn’t say I understood. I didn’t.

Lies My Culture Told Me

Meanwhile, they kept grieving. She spiraled into depression. He didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I felt quite often like those “miserable comforters” who came to grieve with Job but left without helping (Job 16:2). I listened. I prayed. But it never felt like it was enough. Many visits seemed to fall flat. I wanted to help but didn’t know what to do.

Years later, I look back at that season with regret. I do so because I believed things about suffering that were harmful. With more cuts sustained, tears shed, and valleys travailed in my own life, coupled with the reading of a dear saint’s honest struggle with his wife’s death (A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis), I see more clearly now how unhelpful I, and many others, had been to those we so longed to uplift. Four lies, among others, maimed our usefulness to our friends in their time of need.

1. Grieving Shouldn’t Last Long

Contra many of my assumptions, the grieving process typically doesn’t end with the funeral. Instead, it begins. As the grief prolonged with my friends, many hid their eyes and passed to the other side of the street. The longer they grieved, the more awkward it became. What Gary Collins observes about Western societies can creep into our churches all too easily:

There has tended to be an intolerance of prolonged grieving. [They] value efficiency and pragmatism, so death often is seen as an inconvenience, embarrassment, or interruption. Emotional expressions are not encouraged, and grief is viewed as something that, while inevitable, should end as quickly as possible. (Christian Counseling, 471)

At times, I felt like their grief was an inconvenience. We had the same conversation over and over, each one time-consuming. And to explain their prolonged grieving, I dressed my intolerance in religious garb: “If she were trusting Christ, she wouldn’t be so devastated.” “If they clung more deeply to the promises of God, they would be able to sleep at night.”

I did not know that grief was so impractical. It was less rational, less scheduled, less compliant. And this experience, despite what I assumed, was not abnormal. Job’s friends, when they were doing well, knew this. They did not expect Job to be on the up-and-up when they arrived. Instead, they just sat with their friend on the ground for an entire week, mourning with him in complete silence (Job 2:11–13).

2. Recovery Should Be Linear

Grief, I witnessed, is not like recovering from a physical injury.

I broke my arm playing football in the seventh grade. It was grizzly. I didn’t notice I broke it at first, but everyone’s openmouthed stare made me look down. My arm was in the shape of a “Z.” Like this injury, and all others I sustained playing sports, I figured that you sustain the initial setback only to improve with every following day. Break it one day. Put it in a cast the next. And have a stronger arm a few months later.

Grief’s rehab is not as linear as a broken arm. To expect it to be suffocates the grieving process. My friends experienced grief that was cyclical. The initial pain sent new planes to raid them. Months later, at random times throughout the week, they would weep like it happened yesterday. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis described it this way:

Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again. . . . In grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. . . . How often . . . will vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. (A Grief Observed, 56)

The same leg cut off afresh. The same arm broken continuously. Grief, a greedy, unpredictable guest, returns without knocking.

3. They Always Want to Get Better

I couldn’t imagine a world in which my friends did not want to feel better. Why wouldn’t they try to do everything they could to end their pain?

Grief, I found out only later, can be a paradox. The grieving, like my friends, can both desire to be well and unwell simultaneously. The agony of staying in the grief is, in some cases, more preferable than the guilt experienced when leaving. Lewis called it shame.

There’s no denying that in some sense I “feel better,” and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. (53)

Many months later, when days were not as heavy as they once had been, the couple admitted feeling this remorse. Did you ever really love him? it questioned. Then how are you able to surmount the sorrow so quickly? Healing brought a paradox: guilt if you do, grieved if you don’t. Whether the knife stayed in or was pulled out, they sustained damage either way.

4. The Bereft Have Plenty of Help

While this may be true in some cases, it is not in others. I assumed that since my friends had many others commenting condolences on their Facebook wall, a good portion of them would step up and help. This did not happen. Each, it seemed, assumed that another would go to their aid. When I would return two weeks later and hear that no one stopped by within that time, I realized different. Grief had grown, alone, in an empty home with the foldaway crib.

Lewis said he felt like a social leper when he lost his loved one.

I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll “say something about it” or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t. . . . I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. (10)

I wish I had been more consistent in my care and encouraged others who loved them to do the same.

What We Can Offer the Grieving

I am not an expert on various forms of grief, and do not pretend to be. I am no certified biblical counselor. Much of what I know, I’ve learned from doing it wrong. But from my experience of trying to help the grieving that I cannot readily identify with, my only consistent thought is: Do not turn away from those who are grieving.

The non-neighbor looks at the wounded and bereaved, and crosses the street (Luke 10:29–37). He may reason to himself that he cannot identify with what it is like to be robbed and beaten, and besides, he is no professional doctor. He may even tell himself he is doing the man a favor by leaving him to the care of a more competent passerby.

Jesus calls more than the trained counselors to show compassion. And as we learn, that compassion might be costly (Luke 10:34–35). But as a recipient of God’s grace, we are all called, and equipped, to steward the comfort that we have received (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). The pastor should meet with his injured sheep, but so should the other sheep (Ephesians 4:11–12). I did things I wish I could change, but I do not regret prayerfully trying to help. And my grieving friends were gracious to receive my imperfect presence with encouragement, not disdain.

If you have nothing to say, sit in silence for seven days. You may not have answers, but you do have tears (Romans 12:15). You may not know the perfect verse to share, but you have the Author of the verses dwelling in you. Do not look away, or send away the bereft with mere words to be warmed and filled (James 2:16). Listen. Pray. Fast. Weep.