People often ask me how they can help a friend who has lost a child. They see the tears, they feel the heartbreak, they hear the grief in their friend's voice ... but they have no idea what to do and say or what not to do or say. A few years back, I wrote a series of posts about that very thing, and I often direct people to those posts when I'm asked that question. Since I've been hearing that question more and more recently, I thought I'd reprise that series of posts. I'll be posting one each "Monday Mourning" for the next four weeks.
So here we go ... This one originally appeared on the blog on October 31, 2010:
You know, I've been attending church for my entire life. My parents made sure we were there every time the doors were open. Sure, when I went to college, there were some Sundays that I attended Boxsprings Baptist (an old OBU joke), but for the most part, I was in church. As often as we've moved since we've been married, we've always made finding a church home a priority. So over the years, I've been in literally hundreds of church services, Bible studies, and Sunday School classes.
And in all those years, I've never heard a single sermon or Sunday School lesson on grief. Until the death of my daughter in February 2009, I didn't know ANYTHING about grief. I had never learned anything about it at church, and I certainly had never experienced it. I had never lost anyone close to me...grandparents, yes, but grandparents are "supposed" to die. I had no idea what it was like to be deeply, achingly sad. I also had no idea how many sad people there were around me. I've learned a lot over the last couple of years.
So, when Brad and I were asked to share with the deacon body at our church last week, we knew right away what we wanted to talk about...grief. And who needs to know more about ministering to grieving people than the deacons? It was the perfect opportunity to share some of what we've learned.
I'd like to share some of that presentation with you over the next few posts. Many of the thoughts I'm going to share originate with Nancy Guthrie and Greg Laurie, both of whom have lost children. I'll also be adding lots of our own experiences and stories. My goal is to be as transparent and honest as possible, to try to give you a window into our grief. I'll be writing from the perspective of a grieving parent, because that's the only kind of grief I know. My prayer is that God will use something I write to help you personally, if you find yourself in a season of sorrow, or that He will provide you with some sort of insight to help a grieving friend or loved one.
In a recent interview, Nancy Guthrie discussed four needs that grieving people share. The first was this:
They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering and needs to be respected.
Here's how ignorant I used to be about grief...I honestly thought that when someone lost a loved one, they were really sad for awhile...maybe about six months or so...and then they just kind of got over it. I had no idea how long it takes to work through grief (and it is work!). It's been twenty months since Hannah left for Heaven, and we are definitely not "over it", nor do I think we ever will be. Greg Laurie describes losing his son as somewhat similar to the amputation of a limb. The wound from an amputation heals over time, but your limb is never restored. Unlike a broken leg, which heals and allows you to return to normal life, an amputation changes your life forever.
The intense sadness of grief tends to come in waves. Sometimes the waves are fairly gentle and can be ridden out, and sometimes they are tsunamis that suck you down, spin you around, and leave you gasping for breath. Depending on the status of those waves, you may see the grieving person smiling and doing "fine", or you may see them doubled over in tears. You can't make assumptions on how a person "is doing" based on what you see at any given moment. Because in the very next moment, things could change.
We need to respect a person's need to grieve by giving them the time and space to do so. The person may not be able to return to their normal activities right away....or they might. They might find comfort in returning to a routine. They may want to talk about their loss...or they may not. Think back to the story of Job in the Bible. His friends sat with him in complete silence for seven days...things fell apart when they opened their mouths! Unless you are a very close friend or family member, don't ask them, "How are you doing?" That is an incredibly difficult question for a grieving person to answer. For one thing, the answer could vary widely depending on the status of the waves at that particular moment. And, there is no simple answer to that question. Don't ask it unless you have plenty of time to sit and listen to what might be a brutally honest response.
Saying "Let me know if you need anything" isn't particularly helpful either. Someone who is going through an intense period of grief may not be emotionally able to ask for the help they need. It is much better to figure out what their needs are and take steps to meet them. A wonderful neighbor took care of our dog when we spent long days at the hospital. People brought food to the extended family staying at our house while we were at the hospice center in Little Rock. There was a hot meal waiting on our kitchen counter the evening we arrived home after saying our final good-byes to Hannah. Dear friends collected pictures and personal items of Hannah's and arranged them beautifully at the visitation and funeral. I could never have done that on my own. We didn't ask for any of these things...people just obeyed the Holy Spirit's promptings and did them. And while a grieving person may forget a lot of things...these kinds of things are never forgotten!
Grieving people need time, space, and "permission" to be sad. That sadness may last awhile. And that's okay.
More to come on my next Monday Mourning post ...