How are you? (or how NOT to help your grieving friend)

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It’s been a month since my father-in-law died.  Only just.  And it has left me and every member of my family totally wrecked, each in our own respective and unique ways.  “How are you” is the question I get asked most often right now.  It’s also the question I dread most right now.  Why?

           Because it’s hard to answer.

           Because, most of the time, people are asking it in the context of a 10 second conversation and expecting me to have a quick and tidy response.  (And I don’t.)

           Because, the rest of the time, people asking it are expecting me to pour my heart out to them and either (a) the time and place are totally inappropriate for that or (b) we don’t have that kind of relationship and I’m not sure why they think I would feel comfortable sharing the depths of my pain with them.

          Because I’ve learned that people expect you to feel better a lot faster than is reasonable after suffering a huge loss.  And when you’re not dealing with it the way they feel you should, they’ll try to say or do things that they hope will fix it.  As if they’re going to say some magic words and make all your pain and sorrow disappear.

 As if you could heal a compound fracture with a band aid.

As if droughts in the desert could be solved by a plucky protagonist with a squirt gun.

As if a canyon could be filled with a 25 lb bag of sand from Home Depot.

These expectations, whether spoken or perceived, are really, really hard to bear.  Moreover, this kind of discourse is actually an extra burden on top of the ever-shifting and seemingly insurmountable weight of grief we’re already carrying.

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Our modern American culture no longer has any real protocol for grief.  People don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say.  They mean well.  They want to help.  They don’t want to see people they care about suffering.  Grief is ugly.  It’s hard to watch and hard to understand.  They just want us to feel better.  They just want to fix it.

Friends, on behalf of everyone you know who’s grieving the loss of a loved one, hear me out– unless you can bring them back, unless you can undo all the awful things that we saw our loved ones suffer through as we watched them die– you can’t fix it.  You can’t take this pain away.

 Mercifully, not all people respond this way to grief.  Some astonish me with how sweetly and knowingly they can show their love and support to those who are grieving.  It’s a quiet, precious, and even healing thing.  They see an open wound and gently, with permission, apply the sweetest balm, rather than tearing the thing wide open to see what’s going on in there.  I get teary eyed thinking of sweet friends who’ve loved me in this way.  And surprisingly enough, it’s rarely a talking thing.  A hug.  A knowing look.  Standing in the kitchen and crying buckets of tears.  A meal or bag of groceries delivered with understanding and without expectation.  A friend sharing their own grief story and asking nothing in reply.  And sometimes, a timely, gentle, encouraging word spoken in season.

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I’m growing as I walk through this and I’ll be honest, it’s not a pretty process.  After suffering a miscarriage, after losing my grandpa, and now, grieving the loss of a man who was a true and faithful father to me– I have been irrevocably changed.  Each loss has pushed me so far beyond my mental, physical, and spiritual limits.  It’s an incredibly vulnerable place to be.  I think sometimes as Christians we get so fixated on this idea of rejoicing in and being thankful for absolutely everything and forget that Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  These things aren’t irreconcilable, it’s not like we’re incapable of doing both simultaneously as we go about our lives.  But I think sometimes we forget that there are God-appointed times and seasons in which weeping and mourning and tearing and casting away are exactly what we’re supposed to do, just as there are seasons of dancing and rejoicing and mending and gathering.  (Ecc 3:1-8)  I think we make it exponentially harder on ourselves when we try to push through those seasons before their appointed time is up.  Even worse when we do this to others.

I’ve learned so much from listening to grieving loved ones, from reading books on grief, and even blog posts.  There are millions on the internet that will give you every tiny detail of the unique experience of different kinds of grief (miscarriage, car accidents, suicides, cancer– even what it’s like to watch loved ones fight and lose their lives to specific types of cancer).  There are even some that are instructive on ways to be helpful or what to say to people in your life who are grieving, like this one or this one from Nancy Guthrie or this short series by Molly Piper.  There are so many resources out there, opportunities for growth in wisdom and understanding in this area.  And it is so needed.

So, friends, I implore you, be gentle with the grieving people in your life.  Check your expectations and assumptions at the door.  Consider what you’re asking of them before you ask it.  Let them know you’re there for them when/if they need it, and don’t take it personally if they don’t take you up on that offer.  And when in doubt, just weep for their loss.  Whether they join you or not, I promise, knowing you care enough to feel their pain will mean so much more than anything you could have said or done.

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