3 Things We’re Learning from Loss, part 1

We have an incredibly close family that has been referred to as the “Leave it to Beaver Cleavers”. You know – the all-American family who goes to church every Sunday, and takes family vacations. They love the boy scouts and the 4th of July, and the major drama is when the family dog gets hit by a car (but of course miraculously survives).

All that to say, we’re rookies at pain, and loss because, well, life has gone pretty well for us.

There are many, though, who will read this who have a Phd. in pain and suffering and have much to teach us, and I hope they’ll add their thoughts in the comments.

There are others who have a limited experience with grief, but who care deeply about their friends and want very much to minister to those in pain.

But whatever group you fall into, all of us, I think, want to get better at being companions who walk well with our brothers and sisters through the dark, confusing alleys of crisis.

Over the past 4 months, we had the remarkable privilege to sit with my little brother in hospital rooms, and care for him at home in hospice, and mourn when he took his last breath.

We experienced so many holy moments and such thoughtful care from the Body of Christ. Our extended family rallied as a team in ways that brings tears to my eyes as I think of the gift God has given us of each other.

Some of the things we learned ranged from the absurdly practical, to the nuances of EQ. I thought I’d share a few of them and encourage you to add your own in the comments.  Today I’m going to start with the more relational, and tomorrow will go to the more practical:

1. Be present in prayer. While my brother and sister-in-law were away from home getting treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston, a friend came and sat on their front porch to pray. Other friends gathered and prayer-walked around the house. In Minnesota, a friend prayer-walked around my block praying for David and our family. We were overwhelmed and so grateful for people praying around the world, but the added visual of people showing up, while also giving space, was especially powerful.

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One morning, after David had died and before the memorial service, in the midst of mind-numbing decisions to be made, and shock over all that had happened, a friend invited Susan and me to walk a nearby Labyrinth and pray. It provided a gift of silence and reorienting. Our friend started walking first, with Susan next, and me last. This was a concrete picture of the Body of Christ, surrounding Susan, supporting her behind and before in prayer.

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2.  Think of an alternative to “How are you doing?” Most of us have had someone ask “How are you doing?” in a season when we wanted to hurl things at them and scream “I’M A HOT MESS OF PAIN HERE AND WANT TO DIE, CAN’T YOU SEE THAT???” However, it’s so natural, we ALL ask the question without thinking about it. Consider alternatives like:

  • “I’m so glad to see you (or to hear your voice).” Then stop and just listen.
  • “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you, but I’d like to better understand what you’re going through.”
  • “I love you.”
  • Give them a hug and say, “I’m here. I can’t imagine what this is like for you, but I’d love to take a walk and listen.”
  • “What’s on your plate for today?” Often if you ask people what they’re doing, they’ll tell you how they’re feeling.

If you’re on the grieving side, you might remember this that I texted to my nephews the day of the memorial service:

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We all need to remember that everyone is doing their best to love each other well.

3. Listen more than you talk. We’re programmed to try to figure out solutions to every problem, a plan for every situation, but in these hard seasons that just doesn’t work. If you leave space and silence and are available, the person most in pain will often talk and needs to process.

Additionally, when someone is in shock, just your presence and listening ears is helpful. My sister-in-law, Susan didn’t need my financial expertise (which is nonexistent) when she met with the banker after David died, and she didn’t need my input at the funeral home, but in both situations she asked me to be moral support and an extra pair of ears. It was an honor to walk with her through these hard meetings.

When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to “be alone together.” First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships–the arrogance of believing that we have the answer to the other person’s problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a “problem to be solved” but a mystery to be honoured. As we find a way to stand respectfully fully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships  would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently. Parker Palmer

So those are a few learnings from some rookies. What would you add?

 

5 Comments

  1. I found so much to admire and take to heart, dear Laura, in your courageous clarion voice! In these days when your loss is yet so recent, you are daring to seek for and after the light and comfort and hope of the risen Lord!

    I went to my Eugene Peterson “The Message” Bible and looked up “grief.” One of th Bible verses centers on knowing that you who grieve are specially blessed. That breaking heart is gently gathered up and cradled in the infinitely merciful hands of God. Psalm 34:17-18 tells us God is readiest even when the heart is the most broken to offer us consolation and grace in our pain,

    “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Matt,5-4.

    So remember that you are most blessed and continue to be blessed in the loss because you’ve lost. The grave was overcome and your relationship to your brother has been transformed. But he will still be a part of your lives each and every day!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Laura, my sincere condolences to you and your family. I would add from my own experience, to also approach the siblings and extended family of the one who was lost. People asked me how my parents were doing when my sister died, how my brother -in-law and nephew were doing, but only my close friends wondered about me. I wanted to selfishly shout at them, “Does anyone care about me? She was my only sibling! We were 1 year apart and shared 52 years together!”. By the grace of God, I finally got up the courage to answer them and then told them that I always thought when my parents were no longer here I’d still have her and it’s such a lonely feeling knowing that won’t ever be true. Some eyes were opened and some were not but whenever someone loses someone now, I seek out the sibling, the cousin, the person who seems to be lost in the shuffle to make sure they know I care about them too.

    • I’m so sorry for the pain of losing your sister, Kim. I’m glad you found the courage to share your feelings with friends. These are great insights. Thanks so much for adding them!

  3. Laura,
    Another lovely post. It certainly rang true. Something I might add is keeping in mind that you and your loved ones are all likely to be very raw and reacting defensively from time to time. So, it is important to be gentle with yourself and each other – being supportive and supported by weaving back and forth between being present with others and just being present with yourself.

    Also, take advice with a grain of salt. People are well intentioned, but what is right for them might not be right for you. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard about the importance of waiting a year before making any major changes. My experience has been that I know when I need to be still and when I need to get moving, and that doesn’t pay any mind to a calendar.

    Kim, having recently lost my own sister, I felt your comment very deeply. May your heart grow lighter and heal.

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