I wrote "Comments on the grief journey at six months" in November of 2006. Life has changed a great deal for me since then, but I think these words are still good. I often share them with the family and friends of someone who dies as a cathartic aide. The ideas here helped me; I hope they will help others as well.
"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;
but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
-- I Corinthians 15:55-57 (NASB)
Just four weeks after Dienne's death, a well meaning friend sat with me in the lobby of a conference center and asked, "How are you doing?" I was only a month into being a widower, and already I was tiring of that question.
My answer was a sincere, "I don't think that's the right question."
I should have anticipated my friend's response, "Then, what is the right question?"
For the last six months I have been mulling over his request for the right way to engage the life of someone who has just lost a loved one. If there is a full answer, it seems an illusive one. Never-the-less, the following four principles may be of some help as we find the way to offer love and compassion in the middle of grief.
First, appreciate the uniqueness of every experience. If there is one thing I have learned in the grief process, it is that we all go through it differently. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has identified five stages through which she believes all people in grief pass. Many grief counselors and, I would guess, many of us have relied heavily on her research and assumptions. What few of us realize, perhaps, is that Kübler-Ross looks at life from outside the Christian world view. While she has rightly identified certain emotions that are typically present in the grief process, her approach and analysis seem over simplified. There seems to be a "one size fits all" sense in the application if not in the intent. The reality of grief is that no two of us grieve in the same way. No two of us go through the emotions in the same sequence. No two of us experience the same intensity of any stage. To suggest that because I have experienced the loss of my spouse I am able to understand someone else's loss is naïve. I may have some deeper insight because of a shared experience, but I don't know what the other has experienced. We need the space to live the variables that shape how we face death knowing that each experience is unique, not to be compared.
Secondly, make no assumptions. I have discovered in my journey that we all seem to have some preconceived ideas about how the grief process should progress. This is true whether we have been through the process ourselves or not. How each of us grieves is shaped by numerous variables: the depth and type of relationship we enjoyed in this life, our understanding of the sovereignty of God, our willingness to accept the sovereignty of God, our ability to cope with change, our world view, our ability to deal with feelings and emotions, our levels of pragmatism. Even in creating this list there are assumptions that we need to dispel. The grief process is not a "faith" issue. In other words, we cannot judge one's level of faith by the way one progresses through the process. Some of us will struggle for months or years just to get out of bed and face each day. Our "fogs" will be sometimes dense and sometimes light and sometimes quickly dissipating. Some of us will move into new relationships in what would appear to be a relatively short time. Some of us will seek to remain single. Some of us will want to remarry. There really is no such thing as "too soon" or "too late" as long as God is honored in what we do. Offer us wise counsel, but allow us to move through our grief into joy on our own God given schedule and plan.
Then, ask real, answerable questions. The two hardest questions to answer are "How are you doing?" and "Is there anything I can do for you?" (or even worse is the statement "Just let us know if there is anything we can do for you"; it takes more than courage for us to ask you do something for us). Most of the time, I don't have a clue how I am doing or what someone can do for me. Or better said, I just don't have a measuring rod against which to answer these questions. Sometimes, I'm doing very poorly, though it may be in ways completely unexpected. Sometimes, I am doing very well, but compared to what? "How are you doing?" is subjective and impossible to answer. In early grief, offer practical help that is directed and specific. Instead of, "Is there anything you need help with?" try "I am free Saturday morning. May I help with your lawn (or go grocery shopping for you or take you grocery shopping or do a load of laundry or bring you a meal)?" As time progresses, try finding questions that have specific answers. I think most of us are looking for someone who will hear our answers. We are open to questions that help us talk through our experience. What have you found most surprising about your grief journey? What part of your journey has been the hardest? Is there any part of your grief process in which you have seen God work in a special way? Is there something in the process you wish you had done differently? What advise would you give to someone in your situation? There are two very critical points to which you must commit when you ask questions. We assume you really care and you want to be of true assistance to us. When you ask a question, be ready to listen. If you don't have time to sit for half an hour and let us pour out our hearts and tears to you, don't ask anything. Secondly, just listen. We don't want you to fix anything; we don't want you to correct out theology; we don't want platitudes. Hold us (if we want), cry with us, and listen. Your presence means more to us than anything you can say.
Finally, don't forget us. The initial outpouring of sympathy was almost overwhelming for me. The cards kept coming for a month or two after Dienne's death. Then came the eerie silence. I knew it was coming, so I was not surprised. My children, however, were taken off guard. I am so aware that your lives go on essentially unaffected. Ours do not. Our lives have been irrevocably changed. And while we understand you will not mourn, nor should you mourn, as we do, with the depth of grief we experience, we do so long to be remembered. It does not matter that you do not know what to say. It does not matter that your words are not eloquent. What matters is that you remember. What matters is that we know there are brothers and sisters in Christ that are with us in this often lonely journey.
I used the personal pronouns "our" and "we" regularly to relate to you some answers I've discovered to that searching request, "What is the right question?" I don't want to presume or assume that everyone in grief will agree with me or find helpful for them all the things I would find of benefit to me. Yet, I can't help but think that there is someone in our families, someone in our congregations, someone in our neighborhoods, someone one in our communities who is in grief who needs to hear and feel and know that we, God's people, care in a deep, compassionate, and personal way. With a little time and thought we can help make the journey a lot easier.