Every grief and loss is different and therefore is felt differently. These are my current thoughts surrounding my own journey, but I am in no way an expert. I am simply trying to understand this key aspect of life. Please forgive any “conclusions” of mine that don’t ring true to your situation, or any statements that inadvertently lessen your grief or experience.
Grief comes in a variety of ways from the disappointment of a missed opportunity to the death of a close loved one. No grief should be tossed aside as invalid, but must be worked through and reckoned with.
Romans 12:15 (NIV)
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
I generally try not to quote verses without context (the context is how to love each other and what it looks like), but this line has been on my heart lately.
See, it seems straightforward. But it gets…complicated in practice, as many things do. I came to realize my problem with how it seems to be practiced is made more evident when I phrase it differently – when you see someone rejoicing, don’t cause them to mourn; when someone is mourning, don’t make them rejoice. I don’t claim this is equally spiritually true or a just interpretation, but it’s something I’ve experienced, and I’d like to talk about it.
In my recent and past mournings, I’ve noticed a lot of weird things that happen. At the beginning – some people, not wanting to experience the grief themselves, become cold and distant. This usually happens to acquaintances, or professionals along the way. It’s brutal, and if it wasn’t the cause of healthcare service failures, I would totally understand. Empathy hurts. A lot. And expressing grief about others’ troubles is awkward.
On the flip side, some people mourn A LOT. When I talk to other grievers, we describe it as having to manage THEIR grief as well as our own, and how frustrating it is. Again, I understand it. Either they genuinely have a great amount of grief at the situation and are trying to work through it, or feel like “sorry” isn’t enough and have to “put on a show” thinking that will help. Whatever the reason, it’s exhausting. It feels wrong to say “hey I’M the one who needs support, not YOU” even though we often feel it in our hearts. At the end of the day we didn’t even manage to get around to working on our own grief because we were busy trying to handle everyone else’s. We’re even closer to the maw of agony than we were when we woke up.
In the case of something like a miscarriage, and I imagine others, throughout the grief process we receive a good helping of “stats” sprinkled in. I think this is meant helpfully, like most things, but for me, it really doesn’t help. I hope (dearly) that people don’t go up to someone who has lost a loved one in a car accident and say, “You know, we all have a 1 in 114 chance of dying that way in our lifetime.” How does that help? It doesn’t matter if the number is low or high, it still crushes my heart. It won’t change anything that has happened. In our darkest moments it makes us think it’ll happen again, or think about how we’re the most unlucky person in the world. In our most optimistic moments, it will make us think this will never happen to us again. Neither is a true representation of an individual life. It’s an average. And there are no averages in the grieving process.
After a few weeks, or whatever time-frame, the general feeling around a griever progresses to an unspoken opinion of “why are you still grieving?” This is definitely the worst. At this point, the shock of grief has worn off, and many people are just now experiencing the full weight of what has happened. But to others, it appears like the brave griever of the previous weeks has given way to a bottomless pit of depression, and they’re tired of it. This is the point where the current emotional polar opposites collide – the griever in the depths of despair and the friends who have bounced back. It can appear in many ways: requests or demands to get back to “normal,” suggesting the person be more joyful, or being ignorant of the continued hurt and exhaustion if the person has returned to “normal” life.
I should also clarify that “normal” is usually defined by such people as “normal before the event” whether that be in practical, emotional, or spiritual terms. There is no going back to that “normal.” There is only a new normal which must be sought out and established. And that’s usually what onlookers don’t realize.
Then we reach what we think the new normal is, or is developing into. We’re starting to experience life again, we’re starting to experience “joy” even. And it feels like as soon as we get there, instead of joining in the rejoicing, we are reminded by others of our grief. Again, I’m sure this is well meaning, and maybe even them processing their grief, but more often than not I experience well-intentioned reminders of why I should be sad. I hate these the most. A strong word, I know. But the thing I dislike most about them are that they make me feel like I shouldn’t be happy. They always seem to come on really good days, and they always take me down to the absolute depths. They seem to say, “Why did you forget about your grief?” It’s hard because I think this, most of all, probably depends on the person. I’m sure some people, on the anniversary of something like losing a parent, would LOVE someone to say they’re thinking of them. Others, I think, would be horrified. We all have different ways of honoring our losses, but to indicate that you “should” do something indicates if you don’t there’s something wrong or dreadful with you.
So, I’ve complained a lot, some would say. What SHOULD we do? Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. The problem is, that’s hard. You have to observe, you have to listen. I have not figured this out at ALL. In fact, I consider myself one of the worst at helping grievers.
But here’s the thing: it’s not your job to help. It’s your job to support. I’m not great at that either, but I try, desperately, to take cues from the person I’m with. I try to ask how they are. I let them bring up the grief if they want or don’t want. I try not to change the subject, whatever that subject may be. It’s not my job to make them talk about the grief or something other than the grief. It’s my job to listen.
If appropriate, I try to share my struggles, with an emphasis on that being my own PERSONAL journey. That theirs will be different and that’s not bad, not weird, and not to be afraid of. I try to make sure their feelings are understood. I think we have a weird relationship with feelings where we either embrace them as “truth” or dismiss them as “unimportant.” In my opinion they are neither. Until I acknowledge my feeling about something, I will never be able to see or address the root cause of it. If it’s dismissed by others or myself, I will shove it down deep to come spewing up with the rest of the prisoner feelings at a later date.
I’m sorely tempted to summarize with a bullet point list of “do this, don’t do this” because it’s in our nature and it’s so much easier than the real answer. Which is listen. Put others first. Be sensitive. Don’t do what you need, do what they need. Forgive. Understand. Love. I know I’m still working on and praying through every single one of those things every day.