It's Monday ... That means it's time for the third installment of "How to Help a Grieving Friend", a reprise of a series of blog posts I wrote back in the fall of 2010. This one is a bit lengthy (sorry about that!) but I hope it is helpful to you as you encounter those who are hurting. It's from November 4, 2010 ...
Picking up where we left off.....(Please read the last two posts if you're new to this blog).....I'd like to share more about our experience with grief after losing our daughter to cancer a little over 20 months ago. Again, credit goes to Nancy Guthrie and Greg Laurie for the basic outline of these thoughts.
According to Nancy, grieving people have four primary needs. In my last two posts, I discussed the first two:
Grieving people have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.
Grieving people have significant questions that need to be answered in light of Scripture.
Now, for the third:
Grieving people have broken relationships that need to be healed.
A crisis or grief situation can cause enormous stress within a family, and in outside relationships as well. Again, my comments on this topic are those of a bereaved parent, since that is the only kind of grief I'm familiar with.
Have you ever heard the statistic that 75% (or 85% or 90%!) of couples divorce after the death of a child? I certainly had...and then I was actually reminded of it by a few "helpful" people after Hannah went to Heaven. But did you know that that statistic is a myth? Recent studies show that the divorce rate for bereaved couples is actually BELOW the national average! If you don't believe me, google it! A 2006 study by The Compassionate Friends (the nation's largest self-help bereavement organization for families) actually shows that only 16% of bereaved couples divorce. Who knew?
Now, that's not to say that there are not stresses on a marriage resulting from the death of a child (especially if the marriage is already strained before the loss). There certainly are...not the least of which is the fact that husbands and wives tend to grieve differently. Brad and I certainly do, and it requires a great deal of patience and understanding to allow each other the space and time to do so. There are times when we might wonder if our spouse will ever be the same...and you know what? They probably won't! Losing a child is a life-transforming experience...Neither spouse will ever be the same. But that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. If we allow Him, God can use our experiences to change us for the better, and to bring us into an even stronger relationship with Him and with our spouses. In one of her books, Nancy Guthrie describes the relationship between bereaved spouses as that of two wounded soldiers, limping off the battlefield, leaning heavily on each other, basically holding each other up as they are walking. Now that's a word picture I can relate to!
Relationships with extended family can also become strained, as expectations regarding holidays, family gatherings, birthdays, etc., can become a source of stress. Often, grieving families want to start completely new traditions, and extended family members may not understand. They are grieving, too, and sometimes just don't know how they can help their hurting loved ones navigate these difficult waters. Some bereaved families choose to just "skip Christmas" or other holidays for a year or so. We didn't skip Christmas last year (though we considered it!), but we did do some things differently, because some of our family traditions were just too painful. I'm chafing a little bit at the Christmas displays I'm already seeing at Wal-Mart...We just work at surviving one holiday at a time these days. Hannah's birthday is behind us...we tackle Thanksgiving next...I'll start thinking about Christmas after that.
Then there are those people outside of the grieving family...the people who love them, who are concerned about them, and who desperately want to say something to make them "feel better." These people are well-meaning, and have only the family's best interest at heart. But...some of the things they say can hurt. Or even if they don't really hurt, at best they're not helpful. Here's a list of some rather "unhelpful" things that people commonly say to grieving people:
"I understand what you're going through." (Unless you really, truly do...if, for example, you've also had a child who died of cancer. And even then, nobody REALLY understands another person's grief.)
"He/She is in a better place." (Yes, I'm glad Hannah is in a better place...but I really wish she was still here with us!)
"It's a good thing you have another child." (Ummm...No comment.)
"God always picks His best flowers first." (What does that even mean?)
"God must have needed him/her more than you did." (But couldn't He have left him/her here for a little longer? I really needed him/her, too!)
"God must have wanted another angel in Heaven." (I'm really not sure this one passes theological muster. I don't think Hannah is an angel...I believe she is far superior to the angels.)
"How are you doing?"...followed by a hand on your arm and a compassionate look deep into your eyes with the follow-up question..."But how are you REALLY doing?" (Especially if you are in a public place...that second question can often lead to the release of a lot of pent-up emotion that the person may not wish to share with everyone.) Let me also say...If you are a very close friend or family member of the grieving person, you are in a private place, and you are prepared for an honest response, it's okay to ask these questions.
Then there's the other extreme...the avoiders. I understand this group very well, because I have been (and still kind of am) one of them. These are the folks who see a grieving family coming down the church hallway or down the aisle at Wal-Mart, and suddenly realize that they need to go to the bathroom, or remember that there was something they forgot to pick up in another aisle. I know this because I've done it!! I've done it for two different reasons...one was that I simply didn't know what to say and was afraid of saying something wrong, and the other was that I was afraid I might start crying, choke up, and not be able to say anything at all. Did you catch that both reasons involved being afraid? I really think that's the root of the avoidance issue.
Some grieving families are very hurt by the fact that people avoid them, or may spend time with them, but avoid the subject that they most want to talk about. For me, personally, this has not been a problem, because I understand the avoiders so well. For many people, though, this can be a source of great pain and lead to broken relationships.
I hope you're not beating yourself up right now and thinking, "Oh no! I've been doing (or saying) everything wrong for my grieving friend or family member!" Please don't do that! As Paul would say, "I am the chief" of wrongdoers in this area, and only learned better through the death of my own child. I still slide back into my avoiding habits from time to time...Thankfully, God is still working on me.
So, what's the "right" thing to do when you encounter a grieving person or family? I think a lot depends on how well you know the person. If they are just an acquaintance or someone you have a relatively shallow relationship with, it is probably best to say something like, "I'm sorry about what happened. I'm praying for you." This is highly preferable to "How are you doing?" because it doesn't require a response from the grieving person. If you knew the person who passed away, a brief word about what they meant to you might be appropriate. If you're in a private setting, you might share a little more deeply about what the person meant to you, but be careful about doing this in public settings. It may be more than the grieving person can handle at that particular moment. Honestly, particularly early on in my grief, when I was in public...church, a football game, work...sometimes I was just trying to make it through the event. I would walk through a crowd thinking to myself, "Please don't stop me to talk about Hannah, please don't stop me to talk about Hannah, please don't stop me to talk about Hannah." I knew that if somebody did, I would totally lose it. A brief "I'm praying for you" or a quick hug, I could handle, but not much more than that. Your prayers are absolutely the best gift you can give to a grieving person.
If you know the person well...just love them. Spend time with them. Let them talk. Don't be afraid to bring up the person who has died...I can promise you they're already thinking about them anyway! Allow them to share their questions and struggles without judging. Give them space to work through their emotions, and don't expect them to get over it quickly. Be prepared to spend a lot of time listening, and refrain from attempting to "fix" them. Only God can do that!
I'm almost done...Just a couple more thoughts to share...I promise!
Take a few moments to talk to your children about how to help people who are grieving, especially if you know of a situation they may be encountering with a friend or classmate. When Bethany returned to school a few days after Hannah's funeral, she was met with the following comments from fellow students: "I know just how you feel...my dog died last week." "Hey, I heard your sister kicked the bucket." "How come your sister had to die on my birthday?" I'm not kidding. Her classmates actually said these things to her. Please, please talk to your kids.
Sometimes grieving people have a hard time returning to church after their loss. There are a variety of reasons for this. The memories make it hard...If you've been accustomed to sitting together as a family in church, it can be extraordinarily difficult to come back without one of your family members. Oh, how I miss hearing Hannah singing next to me. The music makes it hard...Music can always trigger emotion, especially when you're grieving. And some of those praise songs can be hard to sing when your heart is heavy and your faith is shaken. The people make it hard (although they don't mean to!)...a grieving person can sometimes feel like they're in a fishbowl, and that everyone is watching them to see "how they're doing." The sermons can make it hard...some messages (particularly those about families) can be difficult for a grieving person to hear. Finally, the expectations make it hard...We tend to have a certain expectation for how people are supposed to behave at church. We dress ourselves up, pick up our Bibles, and put on our smiles. I'll be honest...sometimes it's just too much effort to keep that smile on for two (or more) straight hours. If a grieving person or family doesn't return to church right away after their loss, it may be that they are just not ready to face all of that yet.
I actually started writing this post three days ago. (I'm sorry if it feels like you started reading it three days ago :-) !) I never intended for it to be this long. I've actually lost sleep over this post...waking up early, early in the mornings and thinking about what I wanted to share. My intention is not to criticize or make anyone feel bad about something they've said to a grieving person. And I certainly can't speak for all grieving people...many of them might feel completely differently than I do about some of these things. I can only share from my own experience. And my hope and prayer in sharing all of this is that it will open your eyes and give you a better understanding of those of us who grieve.
Finally...If you are someone who is grieving, and your heart has been broken by something that someone has (or hasn't) said, let me share one last thought with you. The day I started this post, I stopped by our local Christian bookstore to pick up a new 2011 planner, and found a neat little flip calendar for my desk. It's called "Rain on Me: Daily Moments of Hope and Encouragement" by Holley Gerth. When I sat down at my desk to start writing this blog, I opened up that calendar to November 4th, and this is what it said,
"If people have said things to you in God's name that have wounded you deeply, if you sit in the pew on Sunday morning and feel utterly alone in your pain, if you have been hurt by the very ones intended to heal you--then please know that is not God's desire for you. We are imperfect people, and we are capable of tearing each other apart in ways that break our Heavenly Father's heart."
How cool is that? On the very day I sit down to write about grieving people having broken relationships, that is what my brand new calendar says. Someone must have needed to hear that. Our Heavenly Father grieves with us, and some day, He will set all things right.