When Those You Love Grieve

Nine years ago this week, war hit close to home. While stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, my next door neighbor met me in the driveway with news I was unprepared for; her close friend, a young woman I served on the praise team with,  had been notified a few hours before that her husband had been killed in action.

I went numb. It seemed symbolic that the sun began to set as her words tumbled out. I didn’t know if I should embrace my neighbor- nor did I have a clue what to say. We stood together in our shared driveway, shocked, sorrowful, and awkward- while I struggled to process this incomprehensible loss.

It got worse. While my family back home was celebrating multiple birthdays, my military community was rocked by multiple KIA notifications (Killed In Action). By the end of the week, our losses numbered in the teens. I knew one of the widows by name only, and had a casual friendship with another.  Yet now, everyone in our military family seemed knit together by enormous loss. 

Our community was reeling. Some were consumed with “secondary grief” (sorrow felt for another), as well as fear. Most wanted to help, but did not know how. Many tried to call and could not get through.

Intimate friends formed a circle around each widow to protect her from the overwhelming outpouring of sentiment. Those of us in leadership roles at the chapel formed a line of support for those shielding the bereaved.  Everyone who knew these precious ladies wanted to reach out and help in some way- but a deluge of well meaning shock and grief would simply be too much. 

I grieved most for the widow I knew- and for a close friend whose husband served alongside those who were killed. It was difficult to talk about, and still today there is a tender place in my prayers for each of these ladies- and for the soldiers who served alongside those who were killed.

That season taught me lessons about grief that equipped me in my own place of sorrow. A different kind of loss, and a very different process, yet there is truth that rings across the boundaries of suffering.

First- not everyone who feels the weight of someone else’s loss is meant to be welcomed into the inmost places of that grief. The best way to support the grieving is simply to offer support– and not press if the offer remains unaccepted. Those dealing with grief need a safe place to pour out, and this may not be your calling every time. Put aside your wants and pray over your role- accepting every hemming in.

My role tends to be a call to pray. Prayer is powerful, and a privilege, as I get to see many answered prayers in the lives of those I have supported over the years. In the midst of terrible suffering prayer is not a last ditch effort. Prayer is the best way to approach unspeakable loss. 

Never make light of it.

Second- we are “meaning makers”- we try to explain or make sense of every terrible thing that happens. When confronted with another’s loss, people say the most ridiculous things. The desire to comfort coupled with discomforting internal questions can cause platitudes to trip off the tongue:

 “God never gives you more than you can handle”- which, in my own life has proved repeatedly untrue
 “I know how you feel”- as if any loss is ever the same as another
  “It’s just God’s plan”- it is rare to know God’s plan for another

These phrases do not help–in fact they are both hurtful and damaging to someone already in pain.

The most honest offering I have ever heard is:  “I really don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care”. 

I love the acknowledgement that sorrow causes awkwardness, even among friends. I admire honesty that goes beyond sympathy, revealing authentic love. Here is the comfort of presence in a time when words will only fall short.

Third, and most important- Tears are a part of healthy grieving. Tears are key in the recovery process, in fact, tears are pivotal in any process towards greater healing. Never tell someone not to cry, and never be ashamed of your own tears, for crying is a biological response, natural and needed.  Tears are not a weakness, they are a gift to help us through. Healing will not, and can not come, without tears.

My friend who lost her husband 9 years ago posted a quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler this week. It reminds me that grieving is a journey that lasts a life time. We do not “get over” loss, we simply learn to “rebuild around the loss suffered.”

“You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor should you want to.” 

Years later, tears are still a gift. They honor our love, and give release to the emotions we were created to express. In sorrow, and times of stress, may we embrace this gift, as well as the loving Comforter who holds us close- if only we will nestle in and release.

~Just Me

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