Why a glimpse behind the curtain to the deeply personal and hidden grief of a bereaved parent? Not to inspire your pity; of that, I can assure you. Instead to inspire others to look beyond the surface of a grieving friend or family member. To consider how families are affected by a loss, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as the unique family dynamics that result; which might help you comfort, support and encourage them. The bereaved desperately want to be understood, to have their feelings validated, to break free of the isolation, to mourn unrushed, to have another share their sorrow (not attempt to fix it). This post was written months ago and is not reflective of my current state of mind.
I Can’t Do This Anymore!
There are days and moments and very long nights when I think, I can’t do this anymore. Come to find out, that simple thought is a trigger for tears.
Intellectually, I know I can. Physically, I know I can. Emotionally, well there’s where the breakdown happens.
I don’t know if my impending empty nest is permanent or temporary. I know who I am for the next three months but not who I will be after that. I’m really afraid of that answer.
Emotionally I am weak, very weak. Within the borders of my emotions I fear failure — to prepare Gracen for what’s ahead for her physically — to be there for her in an effective way — to watch her experience the devastation wrecked by progressive disease — to experience it for myself alongside her — to watch David experiencing it alongside her, alongside me. To see the toll it takes on each one of us individually as we somehow continue to put on a brave face and hide the true depths of the pain and sorrow from each other so as not to increase their individual burden in this bizarrely intertwined protection dance we unconsciously perform. And as all this plays out within our home and personal relationships, the current culture demands that we have a positive attitude and recognize our blessings. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. It’s frustrating. It’s impossible.
Moments such as this one, Progressive Disease – A Moment of Triumph, are rare and bittersweet. (At the beginning of the clip, keep your eyes on the right side of the screen so you don’t miss Gracen’s appearance.)
“Don’t be afraid — trust God”, we are told in the midst of situations where there are very real things to fear. Sorry, those commands, biblical or not, are not helpful. I’m not saying they are wrong, just that they aren’t comforting and encouraging. It’s almost impossible to talk yourself out of fear — especially after your worst fear has already been realized. Those words, “Don’t be afraid — trust God”, heap indictment of failure on already emotionally overburdened believers who interpret those words as an accusation — “You aren’t trusting God”, instead of as the encouragement they are intended to be. At the same time, the searing pain within testifies to the truth that what we are trusting God for is eternal in nature. We are terrorized by the knowledge that our desires, for ourselves and those we hold dear in this temporary world, play second fiddle to God’s purposes. This, of course, I can attest to from all too much personal experience. God’s will serves our ultimate eternal good but the rub is that we reside in the here and now. And while from an eternal perspective our lives are no longer than a blip on a radar screen, in the here and now that blip lasts ten, twenty even thirty years or more. Our afflictions are light and momentary from an eternal perspective but they don’t feel that way in the day to day.
Yes, I need to cultivate an eternal perspective, lay up eternal treasures, yadda, yadda, yadda. But frankly, there are days, moments and very long nights during which I’m too emotionally frightened and exhausted to exercise my spiritual muscles.
Helping the Bereaved Bear their Burdens
1. Pray that the bereaved will put on the full armor of God. Their faith is under attack and they are exhausted and deeply vulnerable.
2. Avoid the use of platitudes and trite phrases. They serve to frustrate and unconsciously communicate unintended messages. (i.e., faith and trust in God mean things hurt less, our hope for eternity exchanges grief for joy, joy and happiness are the same thing, the salvation of the lost justifies the death of a loved one).
3. Be extremely careful in the use of Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” (KJV) There are a time and place for every season under heaven. There are a time and place for this verse. I personally think it’s more harmful than helpful in the face of raw grief and more appropriate a year or two down the road when the bereaved can look back and hopefully recognize the fulfillment of this promise.
4. Be cognizant of the fact that believing God has filtered everything through His hands before allowing it to happen can lead a believer to blame God for the tragedies that befall them. In truth, spiritual warfare, an individual’s exercise of free will or the fall of man that affected all of nature are responsible for the death of their loved one. The fact that God allows bad things to happen to His children is not the same as causing bad things to happen. For all we know, Satan was tempting while God was pleading when another’s actions lead to the death of a loved one. “For ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world–the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us in the heavenly warfare.” (Ephesians 6:12 ~ Weymouth New Testament).
5. Validate feelings. A grieving father who feels like beating the crap out of the person responsible for their child’s death is normal. It’s okay; it’s helpful actually to say, “I’d feel the same way if I were you.” Validating feelings in no way condones sinful actions. Feel free to tack on, “You’re not planning to act on that, are you?”, if in doubt.
6. Do NOT correct the emotions of the bereaved. Emotions are not right or wrong; they were designed by God and serve a purpose. A fellow mourning mother recently told me, “Emotions are for emoting.” How an individual responds to their emotions can be right or wrong but never simply expressing them. Do NOT tell the grief-stricken that they can’t or shouldn’t feel any given way or that their feelings are sinful!
7. Affirm the bereaved’s ability to continue on. Be there for them through cards, text messages, phone calls and lunch or dinner dates. Don’t take it personally if your call and invitations go unanswered. Simply try again another time.
8. Before you offer any advice, imagine yourself in that individual’s shoes; then personalize the advice. You are now the parent whose child just committed suicide. Consider how you might feel should someone tell you to count it all joy, or that God is good all the time, etc., before you offer any advice to the bereaved. Perspective changes when things get personal.
9. It is indeed rare for a bereaved person to continue in deep grief for an extended period of time (more than two years). There are always a few who never recover, however, Christians need to trust that God will heal the hearts of the bereaved as His word promises, in His time. There is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:4b KJV). When you encourage a fellow believer to move on, choose joy and be thankful for what they still have, you are, in effect, expressing that you yourself don’t trust God to heal their grief, but instead believe that the grief-stricken Christian must work to heal themselves.