One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation. The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester. Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry. Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.
Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts. These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind. Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief. The first reality is this:
Grief is personal. No two people grieve in exactly the same way.
Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it. In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago. Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death. So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.
The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal. Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.
A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving. I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session. Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve. As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session. This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….
You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.
Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through. He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you. Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare. If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself. This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank. But that’s what makes grief so complicated. Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives. If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.
When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving. Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better. My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.
Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings. They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore. The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race. Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.
When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him. In the meantime, Lazarus died. Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place. But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda. Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44). And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief. “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.
What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances. Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen. Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.
So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens? I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….
You need to sit with your emotions.
When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief. Feeling hard stuff hurts. No one likes pain. But feel we must. Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away. Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people. No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma. It forever changes you. Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart. Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.
Also, let others feel them, as well. It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief. You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.
Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.
Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost. Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair. Nope. Not even close. The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat. It’s okay. Go ahead and feel them again. Don’t short-circuit the emotions. Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with. That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.
I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble. I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply. Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.
Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us. We can never go back to the way things were. But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.