How do you comfort those in that place?
There are times in life where it feels like it’s not going to be okay. The world as you know it ends abruptly. Someone you love is suddenly gone, and you don’t know what to do. You’ve lost words to describe how you feel, what you think, or what you need. And all you want is that person back. But what do you do?
The greatest piece of advice I have ever received is from Dr. Megan Devine, the author of “It’s Ok Not to be OK.” The first thing to understand is, “Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” Just like you can’t ignore an infection and hope it heals on its own, you can’t ignore the emotional pain after loss. What can be offered is to help carry that burden of loss. What does that look like? It’s not trying to make that person “feel better” or to forget what they’re feeling. It’s sitting with them, being present in the sorrow, listening to them without giving advice, and allowing the sorrow to just be.
"32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept." John 11:32-35 (NIV)
Jesus may have reminded Martha of the resurrection, and Martha’s level of faith and trust is impossible to comprehend. But with Mary? Jesus joined in the emotion with her. Jesus knew the fix, but He didn’t remind Mary of it – He simply sat with her and carried the hurt with her.
We need to stop pointing out that God works all things for good. Yes, He does. I believe that. But I can promise you, for families dealing with recent tragedies, there is nothing good that could come from that situation that will make up for what they lost. Parents losing a child is a loss that is irreplaceable, and the pain and the sorrow of that will never go away. And it is unacceptable and insensitive to tell people they need to “move passed it.” Because they never will. Instead, they will learn how to live with it.
I have said goodbye to two grandparents and two great-grandparents in 2002, 2005, 2010 and 2021. I had a lot of time with them and count it a blessing, but that doesn’t take away from the waves of sorrow I experience from time to time. And yet that is nothing compared to the unimaginable that people all over this country are carrying right now. Because of that, if I meet any of them, I will never disqualify their pain by trying to point out the positive.
My journey in understanding grief started around 2016 when I read an amazing, honest, and vulnerable blog by Tim Lawrence about tragedy. And he does not mince words.
“Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.”
The direction may seem harsh, but looking to the example of Jesus, He also told the disciples to walk away from people. (Matthew 10:14) Even though there may be truth to positive things coming from the worst possible moments in life, that doesn’t need to be said. For those facing the unimaginable, there will never been a good enough reason for their loss. And for that reality, it doesn’t need to be said. There is the age old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and telling someone something horrible happened for a reason is not a nice thing to say.
Instead try these out:
- “I am so sorry.”
- “I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through.”
- “That sucks.”
- “I am here for you, and I love you.”
There are few other things to say to someone dealing with grief. As much as we want to say more, we don’t need to, and shouldn’t really. Ask about the person, and listen to the stories. Because memories keep them alive just a little longer and soften the pain just a little.
We have to give space to grief. As Dr. Megan Devine points out, “Grief lasts as long as love lasts.” And I watched that with my grandmother as she lived on 16 years after my grandfather passed away. Not a day went by that she didn’t grieve his absence, because she loved him every day she was alive.
God gives us another example of how to respond to grief and suffering in the book of Elijah. In this passage, Elijah is running after his greatest miracle, and eventually is hiding in a cave.
"9 And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty, The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, tore down Your alters, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 1 Kings 19:9-11 (NIV)
Elijah witnessed everyone he knew either abandon him or die for following alongside him, and God’s response was God’s presence. People hurting don’t need words, they need your presence. Dr. Megan Devine states it as clearly and concisely as possible by saying, “Show up. Listen. Don’t Fix.”
Carrying Your Own Grief
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 (NIV)
In the immediate aftermath, there is the genuine struggle to even do the basic things like taking a shower, washing your face, and making a meal. Because everything within you wants to crawl up into the fetal position, cry, and do nothing. And sometimes, it’s okay if you need to do that.
There are going to be difficult moments where you are hurting, and it's important to acknowledge the safe people in your life and reach out to them. In my most difficult moments, I will text close fellow believers in Christ and say very clearly, “I am having a difficult moment.” Then I will share what I am grieving. In every moment, I have been met with love, care, understanding, and patient ears to help me through those moments. This is where groups really make a difference, because in those moments of connecting in small groups, you can pinpoint people who are safe places to turn to in your darkest hour.
We can tell by reading through Psalms that God hears and cares for those grieving and mourning. Which tells me that God wants us to be honest and transparent with our grief. He longs to comfort us in our pain. That doesn’t mean to share our pain with everyone, but with those we know and have shown themselves to be a safe place. Jesus had 12 disciples, but He only brought Peter, John, and James to witness the Transfiguration (Matthew 17).
Here are a few books and films I find helpful in discussing and contemplating grief: (Including options safe for the whole family)
- “It’s Ok Not to be Ok” by Dr. Megan Devin
- “Compassion: A Reflection on Christian Life” by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. Mcneill, et al.
- Pixar Films: Inside Out and Up
- Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (Film with Dustin Hoffman about a toymaker who prepares to die and his staff facing the difficult truth.)
Grief takes time.
If you find yourself still weighed down weeks, months, or even years after saying, “Goodbye,” to someone you loved, I need you to know that it is totally okay, and it is totally normal! Show yourself grace throughout the process and share where you are at with a few safe friends. Continuing walking forward through life, pause when you need rest, and be honest with where you are at. Because in time, you will have more good days than bad, and in time, as God comforts you, you will make it through the darkest of valleys, to live in the joy that comes with the morning.
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