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My dear friend Linda Robertson posted this morning about the pain she experienced in church following their son Ryan’s death. She poured her heart out about all the things people do and say: from walking away when they see you coming, to asking if you’re better yet two weeks after the death, to saying Ryan wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.

I thought as I read it how hurtful  people can be instead of offering comfort when we need them. But then I remembered my own experience and I understood it much better.

Some years ago my writer friend Jennifer lost her husband suddenly to cancer. It was only a few months from diagnosis to death and a shocking loss. I read her timeline on her website but I had to stop. It was too crushing to me. Now let me pause here to say I am no stranger to death. I lost both parents and three brothers by the age of 23, so I considered myself someone who understood the tragic pain and aloneness death brings.

But I’m telling you, I was worse than useless. My own story of loss and pain had left me terrified of losing my Rob – an overwhelming fear. Jennifer’s story ripped a hole in me. I didn’t want to say something stupid (about God working all things together for good and all that ill-timed useless talk that only makes the speaker feel better), but neither could I muster any real comfort. I simply withdrew.

Looking back now, I realize how poorly equipped we are to deal with the unknown. To hold what we love with an open hand requires faith in the goodness of God despite the horrors that may come. Frankly, that’s just a little too real and most of us (me included) don’t really pull that off.

Wonderful Brene Brown said that when we’re afraid “we make uncertain things certain.” Including faith. Faith is really a marvelous expression of trust in someone uncontainable in the mist of open-ended questions. But when you’re afraid, open-ended is the last thing you want. And afraid we are, especially post-9/11, with random bombings, school shootings, and an uncertain future. So we close up the loose ends and we must shove these horrible, uncontrollable losses into a box. Then we can keep our view of God – and our security – intact.

The only trouble is, we miss out on the joy of living in authentic community together, which brings genuine healing and comfort.

Click here to read “What Do You Do When Your Son Is Gay”

Why We Hurt Those Who Grieve

18 thoughts on “Why We Hurt Those Who Grieve

  1. Hi Susan. I am so happy that your blog turned up in my email one day. I have been reading it ever since, and today’s topic on death of a loved one is especially close to my heart. I lost my 29 year old son to suicide 11 years ago, and all these comments help me to know that how I acted in my grief was totally normal. I am grateful and blessed that I had three people in my life at the time who let me just be. As you were saying, they were able to just be as well. The comment about the friend “crying at her feet” was just beautiful and exactly what I needed at the time. In truth, I railed at God daily and hated Him with all my being for many years and dared Him to kill me. Yes. I was enraged. But looking back, I see so clearly that He carried me through all of it and to the other side of healing. I have 3 other beautiful children whom I am so grateful to be ALIVE with today, one of which is gay! So I have my blessings in multiples, and I have never thought that God didn’t love him or accept him fully. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the more we have been through and recovered from, the more we can know the true love of Jesus and share that with others; no matter the situation they may find themselves in.

  2. Hi Susan, very well said. I recently wrote a post about some of the awkwardness after my son died but you have actually expressed it better than I did. People don’t know what to do with a person who is intensely grieving and so all to often we make the mistake of doing nothing. I think if we could be comfortable just “being”, if we had the opportunity to live in that authentic community it would work better. I knew within myself that people’s intentions were always pure and good but I felt so frozen in my grief that I couldn’t reach back to make them comfortable to walk with me. One of the hardest examples was that my birthday was just a week or a few days after our son’s funeral. I really didn’t care at all about my birthday but like an observer I could see my Mom and my sisters moving around me trying to figure out what to do….so hard. Thanks for sharing. Suzanne

    • Aw. You’re so welcome. I agree, we are not very good at just being. Aren’t we so well trained to fix things, make things happen, and when we can’t (who could “fix” someone’s grief), we have no idea what to do. Thank you so much for sharing your heart.

  3. I think one of the most difficult things for me to understand and come to grips with following the death of our son was why the Christians we knew stepped away instead of stepping forward. I had never felt so alone and abandoned in my life. Even now, eleven years later, I shake my head at the memories. I’ve worked hard at forgiveness, reminding myself of my own faulty humanity, and I continue to work on forgiveness whenever those feelings arise once again.

    • I’m so sorry for your experience — and equally sorry that it’s all too common. Your story is tragic and happens a lot. In fact, you’ve inspired me to write a post for this week! But in short, let me offer this. When “bad things happen to good people,” it short-circuits the unspoken deal we made with God. (I obey; You protect/bless.) When someone they know and love experiences tragedy, it just comes too close to home and they must back out. They can’t afford to face your pain because it’s too painful to them. You see what I mean? I’m not excusing them, by the way! I’m just saying that in order to embrace you in your pain, they would need a shift in paradigm, and most don’t seem willing to go there. I’m am so sorry for your pain, and grateful that God loves you very much and redeems every tear. God bless your sweet journey, my friend.

      • I understand that the tragedy of losing a child is too close to home for many Christians to understand. There were many things I understood with my head, but didn’t understand with my heart. I knew it was not easy to be around us. It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that if this happens to someone I know, it could happen to me. No one wants to go there. But it still leaves the bereaved alone at a time when they need kindness, love and support the most.

  4. Oh, Yes! I want to experience more of Jesus myself. I need to see more of Jesus right now. I want those around me to know what only He can give. Thank you for once again prompting us to consider what we say, Susan. I am also one who wants to be authentic and realize I just don’t have answers to life’s great losses and grief. I, too, am sorry for the painful events you have experienced, but I realize it has shaped you and your thoughtful words have helped me. Thank you, friend.

  5. Susan, I have also been guilty of trying to say the right thing. My sister lost her 28 yr. old son, when he was a missionary in Uganda. She often says, that the best comfort she received was a friend that sat at her feet and cried.
    I’m sorry for your loss of family, hugs to you!

  6. I love this post and I love Brene Brown. You hit on something that I think needs to be said more often and louder. It’s amazing how poorly the church equips us to deal with loss and grief. So many of the soundbites are almost insulting to those who are dealing with all the emotions that the death of a loved one brings on. It’s certainly not a Christian show but I am watching it and loved this quote from the series Orange Is The New Black:

    “I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get wacked with machetes. I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just bulls***, and on some level, I think we all know that.” ~Piper, Orange is the New Black

    Sometimes I think we need to listen to how we sound to people outside of the church.

    • I couldn’t agree more. My point with this blog is Christians like everything to fit inside a neat box that feels controllable and makes sense to them. But those outside the church aren’t buying it, and they’re rejecting the whole box, including Jesus. That’s the problem, that we are driving people away from Jesus.

    • I’m not sure how I ended up here but I feel like I should weigh in on this topic. You Christians really do need to look more at how you appear to those outside of your religion. Not everyone is the same and hardly anyone fits within the Christian ideals. I don’t believe in God, as I’m a Buddhist, but I do believe that the purpose of religion is to drive people to help others regardless of that person’s beliefs, without trying to make them believe that the reason they are being helped is because they are at the mercy of whatever deity. We should be helping humans because we too are humans.

      • Mary, I agree with you. Jesus told us to love and encourage one another – that that’s how people would know we belong to him. He helped the most down and now people on earth. That’s supposed to be how it works. Thank you so much for weighing in. : )

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