6 years ago yesterday, I received a phone call from my parents informing me that my brother-in-law had taken his own life. That day, and those days which followed, are impressed upon my memory in vivid and visceral ways.
Prior to this marker moment in my life, I felt to be in a fertile place of growth toward vocational discernment. I was in the final weeks of my seminary education and looking forward to graduation. I was working at a local congregation, serving as Youth Intern. I was recently engaged to my college sweetheart. I had just returned from a discernment weekend to find out my placement as a Young Adult Volunteer through the YAV Program of the PC (USA). Life was good!
The emotional toll of my grief, after learning of Fernando’s death, seemed more than I could handle at the time. I heavily depended upon my family, my faith community, and my seminary community to hold me and assure me of God’s presence in my darkest hour.
Prior to my time as Church Relations Officer, I worked as a healthcare Chaplain in a small, community-based hospital. I witnessed the deaths of many individuals, from 22 weeks of age to 98 years. As I digested each experience, I was eager to find an algorithm of support which worked in every situation, with every type of traumatic event, and with every type of person. I wanted to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I yearned to be a great pastoral care provider!
Upon reflection, I soon learned that it was my being human which gave me the best tools to support another in their time of grief.
As pastors, educators, lay leaders, and people of faith, we are called upon to nurture and guide one another as we wade through the storms of life, including moments of grief and loss. One of the most precious gifts we may offer to one another is our gift of love, listening, and empathy. Here are some practical ways to put those gifts into practice:
Practice empathy, not sympathy
An empathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates space for mutuality, processing of emotions and deeper understanding. A sympathetic posture towards another who is grieving creates an emotional imbalance between the care giver and the one grieving. Metaphorically speaking, we might create a better connection with those who experience grief if we choose to put on our rain boots and experience the storm with them rather than floating by in our safety raft, looking on with pity and disbelief. Empathetic responses require us to tap into vulnerability and truly seek understanding of the other. We do this best through listening and being aware of our own emotional processes with traumatic situations.
Your grief is not my grief
When we project our stuff—our feelings, our experiences, our trauma, our vulnerability—onto another, we limit the grief of another. This is most often reflected in our response to another person’s experience of grief. Some people experience shock and cannot comprehend the reality of loss. Some people transition into autopilot and prefer to keep busy in order to protect themselves from feeling their feelings. Some people roll on the floor, pound their fists and cry out to God in anger. Some people remain stoic and hold their feelings in. Some people burst into tears and seem to cry for days at a time. Some people feel relief, but may be afraid to say it. We all grieve differently, and that is okay.
Your grief is not my grief, so when providing care to another who is grieving, it is important to keep our projections about how grief should look, feel, sound, taste, and smell out of the conversation. Leave aside anecdotal words of wisdom, bad theological commentary about tragedy and your personal story of loss. Instead, practice listening to hear rather than to respond. Allow the grief to manifest how it may, and love them through it.
Those who grieve don’t always know what they need
How often have you heard another say to you, “Let me know if you need anything” when faced with a traumatic situation? We say this to one another with the best intentions and our comment comes from a place of sincerity; however, traumatic situations inhibit coping skills in the throes of grief so such a question can be overlooked by the grieving. What can I do to help?, we may think, and so we whole-heartedly tell our hurting friend, “Let me know if I can do something, anything!”.
It is important to remember that those who grieve don’t always know what they need, or what to ask for. They may be so overwhelmed by their circumstances that even the simplest tasks like eating, drinking, or using the restroom are pushed aside. Here is a nice opportunity to do rather than ask. Arrive with snacks or refreshments. Encourage hydration or a break by invitation to do something with you, whether it’s a coffee break, getting some fresh air, or making a trip to the restroom with you. As time goes on, coordinate hospitality needs with family members, friends or other members in the faith community. People may not remember what you said to them, but they might remember how you cared for them.
Anniversaries are important
Grief is like a deep cut in our skin. At first, it is raw and fresh to the touch. The pain is ever-present and we fear it will never subside. Over time, however, our bodies begin the healing process to repair the wound. The fresh cut becomes a scab, and then the scab falls away to allow for a pink scar. Soon, the pink color fades from our scar and our skin returns to normal, though the scar remains. It no longer causes us immediate pain to touch, but we can run our finger along it and remember the ache of when it first happened.
Grief can be triggered by persons, times, places and events. Anniversaries of traumatic accidents, deaths or loss are important and we can be most helpful to one another if we remember and acknowledge the event with a phone call, a card, a coffee date or some other extension of care. Holidays or other gathering times for family and friends can trigger feelings of grief so remaining aware of these times can greatly impact care. Most importantly, we should be gentle with ourselves and with others as we approach, and work through, the anniversaries of grief and loss in our lives. Taking time to acknowledge our pain, celebrate those whom we lost or gathering to share love with one another can be helpful for all involved.
Looking back on my experience of loss on this sixth anniversary, I can tell you that I felt loved and cared for by those who held me through that painful time. I don’t remember what they said to me but I remember how they made me feel. Pastors and lay folk, seminary classmates and professors, neighbors and long distant friends alike responded with support in meaningful ways.
As you seek to guide your congregants, family members, or friends through loss, be encouraged that your presence and love is enough. Your gifts of listening and compassion are integral to those who grieve. For it is, indeed, in the blessed community where we find our sense of belonging and the courage to face the next minutes, hours and days. Grief is not partial to some, but visits us all. May we find comfort and encouragement in this knowledge, knowing we can be God’s presence to one another even when we face the valley of the shadow of death.
Rev. Nicole Childress Ball