A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Grief Has Many Faces

A few years ago I offered pastoral care to a woman who lost her husband of many years. He had been almost non-responsive in a nursing home for the three years prior to his death. In those years she took wonderful care of him, going to the nursing home three times a day, every day, to feed him his meals. When she looked into his eyes I could tell that she had a love for him that ran too deep for words.

Nevertheless, the stress of such constant care had taken its toll. She had not been a happy person for a long time. Soon after his death she was admitted to the hospital with her own ailments, but when I visited her, the one thing I noticed was the presence of a sense of humor I never knew she had. She missed her husband greatly, to be sure, but having the burden of constant care lifted from her, she now seemed to be liberated.

When Paul tells us to bear one another's burdens, he never says it will be easy, but we bear them because we love those for whom we care. Our burdens though rough are light when we bear the burdens of those whom we love.

Grief has many faces. We all grieve in different ways. I resist the "canned" textbook procedures that outline in detail how one must grieve in a healthy way. Some people grieve by talking about their pain, yet others are silent. The people who think that quiet folks have to share their feelings and let off some steam are themselves the talkative ones. They think everyone should grieve the way they do. We must always remember that the extroverts are the ones who make the rules, since the introverts can never get a word in on the discussion.

The task of believers is not to tell people how they must grieve; their responsibility is simply to be with them in their suffering. Job's friends were being faithful when they sat with Job in silence. They failed their friend when they opened their mouths.

I am not suggesting that there is never a time to talk, but what I am stating in no uncertain terms is that, as people are different in personality and temperament, so they are different in how they work through their pain. In facing grief, some will cry, others laugh, some will talk, others get quiet, some will be angry, others accepting. Most of us will experience a little bit of everything.

Many years ago, as I was leading a Bible study in a former church, we were talking about the importance of the presence of others in the midst of the difficult times of life. One of the women in our group shared that when her husband died, the most meaningful gesture made to her was when one of her friends sat down next to her, put her arm around her and said nothing. They just sat their for several minutes in Job-like fashion. She told the group that her friend's presence meant more to her than all the words of comfort she had received.
When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was (Job 2:11-13).
Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel writes, "I have learned two lessons in my life: first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological, or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones. Second, just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings."

Hope is sustained, not only in eloquent words, but in the silent presence of the other.