“Dad, I noticed you did not cry at Mom’s funeral.”
“You know, it’s time you got over your loss and moved on with your life.”
“Why are you still so sad when you know your daughter is in heaven?”
“What you need is to get out and have a good time.”
Have you heard statements like these? Ever said them yourself?
These kinds of statements, while well-meaning, can complicate our grief. In the first part of this article, I dealt with how we complicate our own grief by noticing how our grief is different from other’s grief experience and then we worry because it is different. In this part, I will explore how others can complicate our grief by questioning how we are grieving.
There is a story in the Old Testament books of the Bible that illustrates this. Even though this story is thousands of years old, it is still relevant today.
In 2nd Samuel chapter 12, verses 16 to 23, we find King David pleading for the life of an infant boy that he fathered. Here is the story as it appears in The Message:
David prayed desperately to God for the little boy. He fasted, wouldn’t go out, and slept on the floor. The elders in his family came in and tried to get him off the floor, but he wouldn’t budge. Nor could they get him to eat anything. On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him. They said, “What do we do now? While the child was living he wouldn’t listen to a word we said. Now, with the child dead, if we speak to him there’s no telling what he’ll do.
David noticed that the servants were whispering behind his back, and realized that the boy must have died.
He asked the servants, “Is the boy dead?”
“Yes,” they answered. “He’s dead.”
David got up from the floor, washed his face and combed his hair, put on a fresh change of clothes, then went into the sanctuary and worshiped. Then he came home and asked for something to eat. They set it before him and he ate.
His servants asked him, “What’s going on with you? While the child was alive you fasted and wept and stayed up all night. Now that he’s dead, you get up and eat.”
“While the child was alive,” he said, “I fasted and wept, thinking God might have mercy on me and the child would live. But now that he’s dead, why fast? Can I bring him back now? I can go to him, but he can’t come to me.”
Did you notice how David’s grief experience made sense to him but not to his family, friends, and attendants? His grief was his own. Early in the story, he fasted* and prayed. He chose to sleep on the floor instead of in his nice, comfy king’s bed to show his love for his son and to appeal to God for help. Then, after his son died, he moved on with his life.
Did his family and friends understand this? Not at all! When he fasted and slept on the floor, they tried to get him off the floor and to the dinner table. When the child died and David washed, worshiped, and ate, they questioned what seemed to them to be the “wrong” responses.
Do your family and friends understand your grief, how you feel, how you think? Probably not. Can you explain it to them? You can try but if you are like me, words fall short. Do they question why you grieve the way you do? Drop hints, make suggestions, give advice on what you should do to feel better?
Because they cannot completely understand how you feel, what you believe, and why you grieve the way you do, they may make suggestions and try to get you to do things that make sense to them but not to you. So, what can you do?
If you are grieving, understand that anyone who notices you and pays attention to your grief loves and cares about you. They truly want to help. Accept their love and compassion. When their efforts to help are not helpful, take a moment to briefly explain where you are in your grief and why you are doing what you do. They may not understand but often it helps you more than them to put your grief experience into words. Third, accept that your grief is your own and unique. But that does not mean you have to deal with it alone.
If, on the other hand, you are observing someone else’s grief and want to help, refrain from making suggestions. Don’t just ask “how do you feel?” because feelings are very hard to explain. Also ask something like “How have the last few days been for you?” Or, “How have you been dealing with your grief? What helps and what has not helped?” And when you ask a question, listen closely and carefully. Let them talk. Don’t try to fix them. Think about what you like and need when you are emotional. Do you want someone to give you suggestions or just someone who will listen and understand?
No one on earth will ever know exactly how you feel but the grief process can be healthy and help you transition to a new life, new habits, new joys, and new relationships. God knows and God cares. May you find God blessing you as you live through your grief.
Chaplain James Riley
*A note about David’s fasting. This was not a “hunger strike.” He was not harming himself or putting his life in danger. David regularly fasted as part of his spiritual discipline and service to God. He very likely continued to take liquids. His body was used to occasional fasts. His choice to fast was a type of prayer to God. If we or someone we know is harming themselves in their grief experience, that is not healthy grief and intervention is required.