“I’d like to pick your brain on how to minister to others in grief,” he said between bites of Indonesian Rendang. The young minister had known his own grief, but as with many of us with shepherd’s hearts, he felt compelled to do something to help those in his flock who were struggling. He’s not alone.
Because of my work with bereaved families, I’m often asked questions like this. Extended family and co-workers contact me asking why their loved one or co-worker can’t just let it go and move on. Some express concern for their loved one’s well-being because they continue to experience grief long after their loss. William Shakespeare said, “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”
John Irving wrote, “When someone you love dies… you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time — the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes — when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever — there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
This initial and ongoing loss makes it impossible for us to just move on. My husband and I didn’t just lose our infant daughter, we lost her first birthday, her first tooth, her first steps, her first day of school, and all the hopes and dreams parents have for a lifetime with their child. While healing happens, so does reoccurring loss.
In death, our loved one leaves a unique-shaped hole by their absence. Just because a person dies, doesn’t mean our love dies. The depth of one’s grief is a testament to the depth of their love, the closer the relationship of the deceased to the living, the stronger the grief. While there is such a thing as complicated grief, most often concerned individuals who contact me are describing healthy normal expressions of grief. Visits to the cemetery can be comforting to some and not to others, but neither is right or wrong. We find ways to move forward, we learn to incorporate our deceased loved one into our new life, but we can’t just let go or forget.
Extensive research shows there is a brain and body connection to trauma. In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score – Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk shares “that trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant.”
Grief, trauma, and stress can be as physical as it is emotional. In addition to our loss, we are often adjusting to a new wiring system in our brains. Our bodies respond physically to situations around us, causing us to act or react in ways we were not familiar with prior to our loss. Those entering the grief process are counseled by seasoned grievers to develop a new normal. That takes a tremendous amount of energy, trial, and error, and can often look to outsiders like the bereaved person is in complicated or prolonged grief.
Grief isn’t always related to death. In my bi-weekly interdenominational Bible study we have a woman with terminal cancer, one with an estranged teenager, one with a brain tumor, one with a developmentally delayed child who is confronting the reality that her daughter might never live independently, and myself, who continues to navigate what it means to miss my deceased daughter for the rest of my life while successfully parenting our three living children.
Both in my work through Sadie Rose and in our Bible study, we talk about needing those places where we can take off our masks. Western culture expects a certain degree of happiness, whether feigned or real, and we have short patience for those who don’t cooperate. Sometimes our grief imposes another’s happiness. People are uncomfortable with our sadness, trauma, or stress. Sometimes the source of our grief touches other people’s unresolved sadness or fears, forcing them to confront or further suppress their own issues. Many of us truly care for the person experiencing grief and want to “fix” them. For whatever reason, one of the most common responses to grief is a dismissal of someone’s pain and strained or dissolved relationships even in the context of covenant Christian community.
Henri Nouwen said, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Romans 12:15 says “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health,” Dr. Van Der Kolk writes. “Safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.”
We Brethren are excellent at disaster response, especially providing care in tangible ways through resources and action. In the same spirit, we need to be present and available for the bereaved and emotionally vulnerable among us. We are great at doing, but in grief relationships doing means listening, asking careful questions, and being a compassionate non-anxious presence.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand,” Nouwen wrote. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Photo by João Silas on Unsplash