It was the summer of death. Throughout the region, we spent the long, hot months being buffeted by wave after wave of fatal accidents – many of them involving teenagers.
All had loved ones. All were loved. All are gone.
Their deaths, which I wrote about for Sumter's daily newspaper, The Item, kept me in a melancholic mood. I interviewed the family of one young woman, and their grief was so raw I couldn’t help but set aside my journalism hat and pray for them. cried. And as I did, I felt the rat-a-tat-tat-tat of reality, knocking at my door.
There isn’t a parent in town who didn’t imagine their children – and themselves – in the deadly wrecks of recent weeks. We were at the wheel of the SUV that was hit by a train. We were in the crash that slammed a metal toolbox into a pregnant teenager’s head. We were in the backseat when the young mother took her baby out of the car seat to feed him, only to see him ejected minutes later, upon impact.
Death, inevitably, makes us ponder our own mortality. When others die, we die. And when the unthinkable becomes not only thinkable, but very, very possible, indeed, we are left with one question. What then?
It’s easy to spout clichés in the face of grief. I heard plenty, following my multiple miscarriages. So much so that I now see clichés as an almost-instantaneous reaction to grief. Everything from “It’s the Lord’s will” and “She’s in a better place” to “Time heals all wounds.” I groan thinking of them. Every time I hear a new one, I want to pull aside that person and say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing?” As one of my professors once said, “Bad theology hurts people.” A
Death is never the Lord’s will – any more than sin is. And, that person may not be in a better place; not everyone is after death. And, even if they are, that doesn’t take away the loved one’s pain. And no; time does not heal all wounds. The wound may not be quite as gaping, but it will always be there. And to assume otherwise, quite simply, is abusive.
When we offer these words, we mean well. We say them because that’s all we know how to say, and we want to help. But that doesn’t make them right, especially if we understand that the reason clichés crop up is not for someone else’s assurance, but to assuage our own emotions. No matter how we try and resist, we’re right there with those who are grieving, and that makes us feel incredibly uncomfortable. So we start in on the clichés – not to make the griever feel better, really, but to get rid of those terrifying emotions creeping up and around our heart.
The real answer to grief is a simple one, but a painful one. All we have to do is be there. Be quiet. Listen. And let the emotions ride.
With those who are grieving, showing up is half the game – especially after things have settled down and the funeral is a distant memory. That’s when most people go back to their busy lives, but when loved ones are hitting their grief journey, full stride. They need people who will listen – quietly and without response, save for the occasional nod and sympathetic utterance. Just listen.
It’s a hard thing to do. It’s hard for me. But I know that it’s a skill I must learn, if I am going to be effective at consoling and ministering to those in need.
As uncomfortable as bad feelings make us feel, it’s not our job to make them go away. Even if we could, it would only hurt – not help. Feelings cannot stay locked inside our hearts. They are meant to be shared. And sharing is the path toward healing, the very essence of the grieving process. But all too often, that process is cut short by others.
Ultimately, true healing – and any fragment of hope that is ever to be found – will come but from one source. As Missy Geddings, mother of Nikki Geddings, said, “There are no words to say. All we can do is drop to our knees when we have bad days and tell God to help us make it through.”
But we can all be facilitators of the grieving process. We can extend the hand of blessing – not through misguided words, but through the patient perseverance of a listening heart.