You leave your offering (with instructions for heating) at the neighbor’s house and drive home feeling both light and guilty.
It’s not that you don’t care - you brought a casserole. You’re just scared. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of making the widow cry. Worse yet, scared of making her put on a smile, fix coffee and listen patiently to your grief stories. You never mean to make it about you, it’s just that you get nervous and it’s kind of good to talk to someone you don’t have to explain things to…
I’ve been on both sides of that door. The anxiety is real.
There are so many ways to go wrong. As the bereaved, I made my visitors uncomfortable when I cried. Or laughed. Or didn’t laugh.
As the comforter, I make myself uncomfortable when I say things that try their patience.
So many things to be afraid of - especially the “why” questions - “Why did God take my child (or my husband, sweet Aunt Mary, or darling little Fluffy who’s always been there for me?”)
How do you answer these things? This is the time to speak up for God, right?
We’re supposed to explain… what? What He chooses to be silent about? Why do we think we can do that?
When my kids were little, a scraped knee was a big deal. They ran straight to me, howling. The closer they got, the louder they got. But the surprise and unfairness of it all wasn’t aimed at me. They just knew where to go for help. And sometimes, “Help me” sounds just like, “Why are you hurting me?” Maybe every question isn’t looking for an answer. Maybe it’s just looking for the one who cares.
Whatever I know about grief, I learned the hard way. About 40 years ago, I woke up to find my husband looking exactly as he always did, but he was cold as ice. I called the ambulance somehow. They come even when it’s too late. When I heard the sirens, I had micro-moments to wake my children and tell them. Otherwise, strangers would make the announcement for me.
I saw the world crumble in their eyes.
The sun was too bright. Voices were too loud. Or soft. Or faraway. Maybe drowning feels like this.
Out of duty, I called my extended family of introverts. They did what they do. They stayed away. Anything else would have surprised me. My church family stepped in and answered phone calls and went with me to the funeral home and brought casseroles. They dropped off grocery bags filled with a disproportionate amount of chocolate chip cookies and Captain Crunch, all meant to feed something in a boy and two girls desperately hungry for a normal day.
For two years, my Sunday School teacher checked my oil and repaired my nervous clothes dryer. A classmate bought us new tires. Bald tires didn’t even register on me, but friends were watching. I was their daughter and sister now.
What I’m saying is, these were exceptionally good people. But oh, those clumsy first days.
Visitors came by in a steady stream to cheer us up. God bless them all. The correct things were said and I responded correctly.
“It was God’s will.” “All things work together for good…” “You’re young, you can marry again.”
All true. All too many words. The constant surprise was the question of the curious: “Was he a Christian?” I think this was supposed to lead to more comfort – like, “Just think, he’s in a wonderful place now!” My heart went out to them when I had to say, “I don’t know.” I felt for their embarrassment. Sometimes we create the cliffs we fall from.
That’s why I always advocate letting the grieved guide the conversation. It beats looking for the right thing to say. The right thing is what the moment calls for. Which might include sharing what we are asking for when we talk to God about them. We say we will pray. But we seldom say what we will pray.
I usually ask for a manna kind of grace. Fresh every morning and enough for the day. I pray for grace for when they need to be strong and grace for when they need to be weak. Grace to be with friends and grace to be alone.
I pray they will understand everything they feel is normal. They are not crazy. They are not lacking in faith. They are on a roller coaster that requires holding on with both hands.
I pray for freedom. Freedom to ask for what they need. Freedom to believe those who love them are praying to be asked.
I say no more than I feel they can listen to. Listening is hard when you’re underwater. If I ask them anything, it’s about the kind of thing most people want to share. How they met. Their favorite memory of Aunt Mary. Or just what kind of crazy puppy Fluffy was.
When the tears come, I remind myself they come with trust.
And I always say the name. Because after a while – days, weeks or months - people stop saying it. Those in grief long to hear it. I learned that from Faith and Grief Ministries where I attended a meeting to write an article. They only allowed participants so I agreed to bring my tidy, handful of grief to the table. My mother had died, but she had abandoned all her children long before. Something so broken would not make a mess anymore. They asked for the name I was there to remember. I hadn’t said the name in two years. I choked when I tried. They waited kindly for me. I finally squeaked out “Rachael” and the floodgates opened. Healing began that day, in the company of friends.
Don’t deny someone the chance to hear and speak the name.
When you visit someone in grief, listen. Let your actions speak, especially in those early days of shock and confusion. Fix them a sandwich. Mow the lawn or change a cat box. Some things are just obvious. Come back and do it all over again when the dust settles and the visits dwindle.
If you must have an agenda, let it be this – let them lead you. God already told us what our part is. Weep with those who weep. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Get under the burden with them so they don’t have to carry it alone. We know these things, we just don’t expect to do them all at the same time. And many times. If you go – go ready to be led.
You won’t have to work on your courage before knocking on the door. Neither will they.