Back at the turn of the year I posted Four faces: gaining perspective for the new year. Among the gracious responses was a particularly humbling email from a sister in the Lord who opted to write me rather than go through the Blogger gauntlet and make a comment.
These emails remind us of the thousands who see our posts and do not comment, but may be touched in one way or another by what we share. It's humbling and sobering, especially when one looks at a map of our visitors and see how international our audience is.
This email was particularly humbling. The sister, who I intend to keep quite anonymous, shared that she had recently lost a child, very sadly. She wanted to share that the post had been encouraging to her.
A father of four, my heart went out to her. I don't know anything that hits harder or more bitterly than a tragedy befalling one of our children. The thought of something happening to one of ours was what I called The Unthinkable Thought, in that my soul simply recoils at the notion. But here was a sister whose The Unthinkable Thought had become a harsh, uninvited, and unwelcome visitor.
So I corresponded with her a bit, tried to share what I had to give. She said her church was being wonderful, she knew folks were praying for them, but it was nowhere they'd ever wanted to be.
I thought of her off and on through the months, and prayed for her and her family. I formed the notion of writing her, to check on her.
With a few notable exceptions, I'm a horrendously bad correspondent, with far more guilt than accomplishments in that arena. But here's what was moving me: knowledge of folks' tendency to drop the ball when it most matters.
Here's what I mean. When a death, or other tragedy, strikes, one's emotions are all a-jangle. There are many quick decisions and adjustments. That's when an even-half-alive church is there, with meals and notes and comfort and encouragement, and hugs and prayers and tears.
But a tragedy isn't always something you can just shake off. You don't tell someone who's just lost a loved one, "Walk it off, get back in the game." As the sage says,
Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda,Rather emphatically we are told not to lecture nor scold, but to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15b). It should be the aim in a local body that, "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Corinthians 12:25a). Righteous Job wept for the person whose day was hard (Job 30:25), as did David (Psalm 35:13-14). None of these verses gives a particular time frame.
Is he who sings songs to a troubled heart.
(Proverbs 25:20 NAS)
And this is what was in the back of my mind. Often, many folks show up when the need is critical. But — and let's be blunt and specific — the dead person doesn't come back in a month, three months, a year. The pain and the loss stay. The mourner (whether of death or another catastrophe) explores a dark landscape that shifts with each holiday, each birthday, each event that would (should!) have been shared with the loved one.
And unfortunately, he or she can be forgotten by his church or friends, who assume that he has moved on. As they have done.
And so I was sad but unsurprised when my Christian sister wrote back,
I guess you could say we are doing well. We are all learning that grief is a like a journey, only you don’t know where you are going to end up each day."Ouch," no?
...I am beginning to realize that I’m starting to feel a little resentment (that word may be a little too strong) toward the people in our church and even in our own families. Our church family was so THERE for us [when it happened] and now, for the most part, they have just moved on and it seems they think we should too. I really don’t think people know how to handle these bad situations. Our pastor has not said anything to me since [the time of loss] about [my child]. I know that most people just don’t know what to say, and frankly, I sometimes don’t really know what I expect them to say. I’m not expecting condolences every time, but some acknowledgement would be nice. The thing is, I know I was like this before. I hesitate to mention it to the pastor he’ll want me to start up a grief recovery group or some such thing.
Her words make me want to re-examine my own ministry in that area. I think she expresses herself absolutely fairly and in a measured way... and I think we're fools if we don't learn from her candid perspective.
So here are my three "takeaways" to share:
- Life isn't like a sitcom or a TV drama. Catastrophes don't necessarily get "fixed" in 30 or 60 minutes. It's a long, long haul.
- "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a difficult time" (Proverbs 17:17 CSB).
- Just being there and showing care is a lot. No need to try to be "deep." Job's friends served him best when they wept with him, and sat silent with him for seven days (Job 2:12-13). When they opened their mouths, they started getting into trouble.
To develop that last point just a bit: when my first pastor lost his dad, he said that the person who did him the most good was a man who simply walked up, put his arm around his shoulders, and stood with him for a bit. Whether it's "I'm thinking of you and praying for you," or asking, "How are you doing?", we needn't rewrite Calvin's Institutes. Remember, Paul said "weep with those who weep," not "give an extended discourse to those who weep."Ask how they're doing, and expect to hear an answer that's not fun. Grief gnaws. A well-meaning friend suggested to my correspondent that dealing with death is like a bad cut that heals, but eventually goes away, leaving a painless scar. She shared that with her children later.
My ...daughter immediately said, “No, it’s like your hand is cut off. It may heal but you still don’t have your hand.” ...Actually, I think she hit the nail right on the head. How can you really “recover” from losing a [child]?There will be a time to share encouraging words about God's love, goodness, sovereignty. Nobody reasonably expects you to be able to explain everything. But don't assume that it's out of place simply to affirm the basics: God's love, the message of Calvary, our eternal hope. I recall a dark time decades ago, when one good friend felt I was too "deep" (or whatever) to be told something so basic... but that's exactly what I needed to hear. Grief can jar one's grip on the fundamentals; a loving affirmation can be very heartening.
But affirming the eternal fundamentals is very different from trying to explain God's providence.
First, I think we do best to show God's love and goodness. Show now, talk later. Show later, too.
So pastors, elders, deacons; brothers, sisters, let us remember. Let's not drop the ball.