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My father died suddenly while on vacation three years ago. The event rattled the bedrock of my life in ways that are difficult to describe, and taught me lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.
One of the truths I discovered, is that when you lose someone you love—people show up.
Almost immediately they surround you with social media condolences and texts and visits and meals and flowers. They come with good hearts, with genuine compassion, and they truly want to support you in those moments. The problem, is that you’re neither prepared nor particularly helped by the volume then.
The early days of grief are a hazy, dizzying, moment by moment response to a trauma that your mind simply can’t wrap itself around. You are, what I like to call a Grief Zombie; outwardly moving but barely there. You aren’t really functioning normally by any reasonable measurement, and so that huge crush of people is like diverting thousands of cars into a one lane back road—it all overwhelms the system. You can’t absorb it all. Often it actually hurts.
This usually happens until the day of the funeral, when almost immediately the flood of support begins to subside. Over the coming days the calls and visits gradually become less frequent as people begin to return to their normal lives already in progress—right about the time the bottom drops out for you.
Just as the shock begins to wear off and the haze is lifted and you start to feel the full gravity of the loss; just as you get a clear look at the massive crater in your heart—you find yourself alone.
People don’t leave you because they’re callous or unconcerned, they’re just unaware. Most people understand grief as an event, not as the permanent alteration to life that it is, and so they stay up until the funeral and imagine that when the service ends, that somehow you too can move ahead; that there is some finishing to your mourning.
That’s the thing about grief that you learn as you grieve: that it has no shelf life; that you will grieve as long as you breathe, which is far after the memorial service and long after most people are prepared to stay. Again, they still love you dearly, they just have their own roads to walk.
Sometimes people leave because they suddenly feel estranged by the death. They may have been used to knowing you as part of a couple or as a family, and they aren’t able to navigate the new dynamic the loss has created. They simply don’t know how to relate to you the way they once did, and so they withdraw.
Or sometimes people see you from a distance and mistake your visible stability for the absence of need, as if the fact that you’re functioning in public doesn’t mean you don’t fall apart all the time when you’re alone—and you do. We all carry the grief as bravely and competently as we can in public, but none of us are strong enough to shoulder it alone. People often say of a grieving person, “They’re so strong”, but they’re not. They’re doing what they have to in order to survive. They need you to come alongside them.
Other times people avoid you because they believe that they will say the wrong thing; that somehow they will remind you of your loved one and cause you unnecessary pain. Trust me, the grieving don’t lack for reminders. They are intimately aware of the absence in their lives, and you acknowledging it actually makes them feel better. It gives them consent to live with the grief, and to know that they can be both wounded and normal.
Friends, what I’m saying is that it’s wonderful to be present for people when tragedy occurs. It’s a beautiful thing to express your love and support for those you love in any way you feel is right in those first few days. It does matter. No compassion is ever wasted.
But if there’s anything I would tell you, as someone who’s walked through the Grief Valley, is that the time your presence is most needed and most powerful, is in those days and weeks and months and years after the funeral; when most people have withdrawn and the road is most isolating. It is in the countless ordinary moments that follow, when grief sucker punches you and you again feel it all fully.
It’s three years since I lost my father, and on many days the pain is as present and profound as that first day.
Remind yourself to reach out to people long after the services and memorials have concluded.
Death is a date in the calendar, but grief is the calendar.
“Till death does us part…” I repeated. Those words seemed to echo throughout the huge college chapel following my promise and then my bride’s commitment. The witnesses, family and friends, of our wedding stood by smiling. Our parents sat with proud looks on their faces. In all honestly, however, I only viewed those words as a symbol of commitment. I did not really think I would experience that part of those important words, let alone do it twice.
Ruth and I had never been happier than we were that delightful day in July.
Our wedding crowned three years of getting acquainted through writing letters and occasional long distance phone calls. Looking back this strengthened our relationship because it forced both of us to express our hearts, feelings and beliefs on paper without the distraction of the physical area. That was great for my growth both emotionally with her and spiritually with the Lord.
The proof of the depth of our relationship revealed itself in the ensuing years of life. We were not only committed to each other but we understood each other. We did, indeed, marry our best friend. To keep our growth together on a “roll” we spent every one of our wedding anniversaries—alone—discussing the “state of our union.”
But the day would come when I dreaded our tradition. It was the summer following Ruth’s cancer diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and our loss of “normal.” Those events proved to be the biggest challenge to our relationship to date. Up to this point our love had been a mutual give and receive. Now Ruth was so drained physically and emotionally that she literally had nothing left to give—either to me or our four young children. Thirty-three is a young age to be facing a life threatening disease.
Finally, for the first time, I sensed our relationship changing and it hurt me in that realization. Ruth was no longer able to contribute to our relationship as before. And, in brutal honesty, I found myself questioning my love for her…simply because things seemed to be one-sided for the first time.
I was preparing for my first experience teaching the book of I John at the school. Opening up 1 John 4:10-11, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” God spoke to my spirit, “See, I loved those who did not love back and I acted on their behalf. You are doing that for Ruth and it is okay!” I dropped to the floor sobbing.
Soon after my dreaded “state of our union” meeting came. Sure enough, Ruth asked how I had been during the throes of the hardest days that winter. I hesitantly, yet openly shared with her how I had struggled and how God met me. She simply said, “I thought so. It’s okay.”
The following six years were filled with days and weeks of hope and disappointment. We faced treatments and then recurrences, over and over.
The most memorable time happened again during our “state of our union” talk that next July. Following a special day on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan, we sat talking. During a warm embrace, Ruth softly said, “I have never felt so at one with you.”
Three short months later, I watched her take her last breath. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Within days I became aware of this hole in my soul that seemed permanent.
Losing a spouse has many aspects to it that are not always understood by many. Indeed, there is the death and physical loss of that person leaving a void in your life. Theirs is also a loss of intimacy in communication. I had no one to tell even small things to that Ruth would appreciate hearing. My biggest loss, however, was the loss of the relationship. It seemed that in addition to grief due to the death of a friend, I had lost the close relationship we had. Love songs were next to impossible for me to listen to.
A year later, God brought along a godly widow lady to the school where I was who absolutely swept me off my feet. What a beautiful lady!
The next year Judith and I found ourselves in a large church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with six sons on one side and two daughters and Judith’s sister on the other. Again, the room echoed our vows, “Till death do us part.”
These words had much deeper meaning to both of us. We had both experienced this hard truth to the fullest. However, even with that, we idealistically viewed the reality of it happening again as being a lifetime away.
Now, the process of blending eight teenagers became twice the task either of us had imagined. Yes, the volume was an issue. When you bring two families together they bring their baggage along. That meant twice as many problems. The growth and mistakes of our kids only drove us to the Lord and to each other. We learned early on to talk about everything, no matter how hard the subject. We reviewed the development of each of our kids every three to six months.
The joys and challenges we experienced in our successful blending of families from two different countries and cultures will have to be addressed at a different time. I need to fast forward sixteen years from Judith and my wedding.
Judith’s health began to be of concern. We spent five years chasing symptoms from doctor to doctor. We intentionally worked hard on her health, even though we did not know what we were fighting. Once again we faced this issue together.
She had to have an emergency surgery. During which the doctor called me in the waiting room. He said, “Mr. Knapp, I am sorry. I am seldom surprised … I found a very mean looking cancer tumor in Judith that came from somewhere else.” I immediately knew she was going to die. I sat down and sobbed uncontrollably for nearly an hour. That continued daily from that day in August ‘till Christmas day.
The next day a full body scan exposed cancerous spots on her lungs and a large, stage-four tumor on her pancreas. With that news Judith asked, “Does that mean I am going to die?” I teared up and nodded “yes” as I leaned over for a long sobbing embrace.
Judith and I talked about everything. This was no different. The next four days in the hospital were full of time we spent mourning her impending death together.
Gradually we communicated with our eight children and their families that they needed to do whatever it took to come see Mom/Grandma soon before pain medication made it hard for her to be alert. I watched, monitored and participated in each one’s mourning. Some of our grandchildren wept the deepest in my arms.
About a week before she left for heaven, I was talking to her quietly at her bedside and a tear trickled down the side of her face. Through her medicated fog she whispered, “I’m sorry I have to die.” Now the tears were running down my cheeks. I assured her it was okay and that I would be fine. I gave her permission to go on without me and that I would be along soon.
Early Sunday morning late in October, Judith leaped into the arms of Jesus.
I was alone again. The loneliness was deafening.
A classic question was posed to me by a pastor friend and his wife. How can we as a couple prepare for such a tragic event as one of us dying “before our time”?
First, be committed to developing the deepest, most open relationship possible. Keeping your emotional distance to possibly reduce unknown future pain is not a good idea.
Next, I would encourage you to have a policy of open communication, even when things are great. That way, it won’t be a new event to add to the struggle of tragedy. Also, it should be a given practice of walking with God closely when things are normal or “easy.” That way you won’t have to learn how to trust Him AND go through tough times at the same time.
Have conversations about “if I go first” at some time or another… better sooner than later. This could help your spouse greatly with hard decisions should you go to heaven first. Live each day with the appreciation for your spouse like you could lose them tomorrow. Keep all relationships current. To this day, I have no relationship regrets with either Ruth or Judith because we lived out our relationships with short, current accounts.
I also recommend couples be willing to take the message of 1 Corinthians 7:4 further than the bedroom. Help each other take care of their temple (physical body).
Finally, don’t be afraid to educate yourself about the grieving process. “Till death do us part” is no joke. It is for real and should be considered seriously.
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When Loss Steals A Child
Comforting those who have lost a child by any means
“When a child dies before the parent, the world is upside down.” (Old Chinese proverb)
Ruth and I did not talk very much about her impending death those seven years she battled cancer. I am sure it would have helped us some had we done more. One of the times we did have a serious talk about her going to heaven revolved around our children. She mourned her own death often and alone. She commonly said she felt like she was being “replaced” in life. The one painful topic we talked about was her mourning her loss of our children. “I probably won’t be able to see their children,” she muttered through her sobs. “I’m going to miss….” She rehearsed many things about our kids that she would not be there for. I watched her affectionately rock our youngest with a faraway look in her eye. I knew she was “missing” that bond in the future and trying to enjoy it now.
This level of loss was all so new to me. I would just listen to her as she reviewed her losses. And likewise, listening is the most powerful thing a friend can do for parents who have lost a child. The hurt comes across as unusually sharp and persistent. A thoughtless comment like, “Well, it must be God’s will,” is not a help at all. Their pain is deeply emotional and not theological.
The study I referred to in chapter four on life’s stress factors listed the loss of a child as being a close third behind losing a spouse and public speaking. There are factors about losing a child, however that can be permanently stifling. No matter how many children one has (I have eight), each one is unique. There will be always enough love for each child. Each one has their own permanent place in a parent’s heart. The loss of that child can never be replaced nor a substitution found. A child is irreplaceable.
I have heard well-meaning friends doing more harm than good to a grieving parent by saying thoughtless things like, “You can always have another one,” “Maybe you can get a dog,” and “Well at least you won’t have to go through … with this one.” You will find it always much better to identify the pain of the parent with simple statements such as, “I have no idea of how much you must be hurting right now.”
Recently I was privileged to meet Daniel Parkins in Southern California. Our get-acquainted conversation eventually exposed our recent losses. I was intrigued while listening to his process of dealing with his loss of a very young son to a serious illness. He lays it out well in his book about their journey entitled Nineteen Days:
I’m not sure I can explain the feeling well. It’s too impossibly deep for words to express. It’s as many writers and poets have said throughout the centuries — the breaking of the heart in two. It’s worse than anything I have felt, anything that I have heard, anything and everything cannot be compared to it — to take my son off life support, the beautiful Samuel whom we loved so desperately. Samuel, whom we prayed so fervently for and hoped for and dreamed for. Samuel, the younger brother, was now going to be missing in our lives for the rest of the sentence we were called to live. It really felt as though my son was being murdered; only I could not prevent it. I felt helpless. (pg. 144)
The Parkins were blessed with a circle of friends and colleagues who felt the pain with them and gave them lots of time and freedom to work through their grief. Their heart ached, not their long-term logic. Daniel pointed out to me that one of the very best thing received from others was that many were simply present for them and even gave silent hugs. Their loss and pain needed to be acknowledged, not explained away.
The loss of a child can be one of the most difficult losses. Even the Bible sees it as a severe experience. “…make mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation…” (Jeremiah 6.26b)
Helping a friend or relative grieving the loss of a child may be a long-term commitment. Unlike other losses, the loss of a child returns to the mind of the parent in a fresh way when unmet milestones come along for the life cut short. You can be most helpful by supporting these times of prolonged grief. Just remembering with the parent can help soothe a broken heart at the child’s birthday or death anniversary. A card or text could go a long way to add comfort.
Loss is indeed a part of our human existence. Helping each other through these normal times increases our bonds to each other and fulfills a purpose for us being in each other’s lives.
LEADERSHIP MISSED IT
A few months following Ruth’s funeral, I met with a missionary couple who had been students under my teaching a few years prior. They had just returned from abroad where they served as missionaries in a remote area. While there, they had suffered the loss of a young child. During the year following that tragedy, their leadership had counseled with them that they should “get over” their loss and get on with life. This unwise counsel only deepened their emotional pain so severely that they packed their belongings and returned home.
I listened to their story in its entirety and expressed my empathy for their grief. The few comments I made came from the depths of my own mourning experience. At one point the wife burst out, “Finally, a leader who understands! No one else has indicated an understanding ear.” Her sobs flowed freely. The leadership in that area did not know what to say. Consequently, saying the wrong thing drove this dear couple away from their life’s passion.
Finding oneself aiding a friend or relative who has lost a child can be a shocking place to be. Knowing what to say can be a huge help in the healing process for them. It is important to remember all the standard things about the grieving process found in chapter two. In addition to these points, a few special considerations can be beneficial both to you and to the mourner you are helping.
It is very human for parents to hurt following the loss of a child. Emily Rapp, frequent memoir blogger and author, described her experience of losing a child:
My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, ‘Death and dying are very different.’ Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.
Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.
Nothing you say can make the pain go away. A caring comment cannot make it worse.
Helping to deal with the loss of a child may be a permanent part of your relationship with the bereaved parent. You can do things like sending ‘thinking of you’ cards on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday. Offering to talk about the surge of feelings that can come over a grieving parent may bring tears, but remember those tears are not from hurt you created. The tears are part of the release process.
Parents feel responsible for the welfare of their children. Parents believe they are to protect their kids from harm and even failure. In addition to the “normal” attributes of the grieving process, we need to understand the complications possible with the loss of a child. At some point, some parents need to work through guilt. The feeling that there was something they should or could have done — or not done — to prevent the death commonly emerges. This is not abnormal. Here, again, concepts from logic statements may not help the loss of the heart.
I saw this truth first-hand one evening. At the end of a concert I noticed that the mature gentleman sitting beside me wore a sweatshirt indicating he hailed from the same state I grew up in. So I asked him what part of Iowa he was from. As it turned out, he lived not more than 30 minutes from where I grew up.
Early in the conversation he made it known that his daughter had died. He and his wife subsequently moved to their present home to be near her grave. I later learned that this all happened over five years earlier. As I listened, he unfolded his pain. A week before his daughter’s fatal car wreck she had been date-raped and the dad felt he could have done something to prevent it. It became obvious to me that his ongoing guilt had suspended his grieving process in time, keeping it very much alive. I encouraged him to find someone he could talk it through with. He assured me a local pastor was available to him. As we parted, I felt sad that his guilt (whether imagined or real) prevented his soul from healing.
A DIFFERENT LOSS
The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents may even tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of their child that died. This feeling can haunt them for years. The pain after the loss of a child differs from any other loss of a person you may know and love. Accept this and acknowledge it where needed. Be very careful not to try to compare your loss of a job, marriage or pet with it.
Also, telling a grieving parent that their child “is in a better place” may be more of an insult than a comfort. Showing concern for the parent’s pain is more helpful. A simple, “I have no idea of how bad you hurt but I am here for you” is much more supportive. You may even be able to offer to help them do something physical such as house work or cleaning the garage during difficult days. Inviting them to talk about their current thoughts about their child can be of help no matter how long it has been since the child’s death.
Anger can often be a part of the grieving process. In many cases it is even directed towards the deceased for leaving. Judith told me she felt a bit of anger towards her first husband for leaving her in death.
With the death of a child, anger isn’t usually directed towards the child, but can be pointed to a third party.
Joy Swift, who lost three children through murder, explained anger expression in an article entitled “How to Survive the Death of a Child:”
You will probably experience strong feelings of anger, especially if your child’s death is caused by a particular person. In that case, you have someone to lash out at, if only in your mind.
But when the death is caused by accident or disease, your anger may become confused. You may pour it out on someone who is completely undeserving of it — a doctor, a police officer, a rescue worker, a friend, or even your spouse. I expressed my anger quite freely, but George, a passive man, kept his inside and talked to very few people about how he really felt. (Signs of the Times – December 1987)
Realizing the core emotional needs of one who has lost a child can be helpful in your ability to help them and understand what they are working through. These complications can add time to the normal grieving process; many parents actually grieve the loss of a child for years instead of months. This does not necessarily mean they are in need of professional counsel. An understanding, empathetic ear goes a long way in knowing what to say.
In the English language there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. There’s a word for someone who lost a spouse — widow. There is a word for someone who has lost their parents — orphan. This lack of definition seems to be a reflection of the ambiguity of how parents who lose a child feel. Try to understand that and be careful not to try to explain it away. It’s doubtful you will ever totally understand their feelings, unless you have indeed lost a child the same way as the one you are helping.
Beware of the tendency to pull away from people who are hurting emotionally. Watching a friend or relative work through emotions such as anger can be hard. Your presence can give them permission to express their hurt and be freer. Be free to tastefully talk about the lost child with them and invite their response. Trite comments like, “Well, you could always have (adopt) another child,” may only multiply their hurts. Listen to where they are today in their feelings instead of referring to some possible “fix” in the future.
Adoption is usually viewed as a very positive event. Placing a child in the arms of willing, loving parents is a good thing. The loss of a child to the birth parent, in many cases, is overlooked. The mother who offered that child for adoption, if she is alive, can often experience the grieving process either immediately or over the course of her life.
Louise chose adoption for her baby:
It wasn’t fair. I had morning sickness just like the other ladies. I had a large pregnant belly just like the other ladies. I was uncomfortable at night getting kicked in the ribs just like the other ladies. I went through the same pain of labor as the other ladies did. But it wasn’t fair that I left the hospital empty-handed.
Then another lady, that had never felt the pain and joy of pregnancy, walks into the hospital empty-handed and walks out with a little pink bundle of joy.
My grieving was a choice. I knew I had to make a choice on how this child was going to be raised. Was I really ready to be a single parent? Or do I give this baby to a couple who is ready and waiting to be parents?
I struggled with that choice for almost eight months. In my heart, I knew adoption was the best for the baby. So the grieving started. The life growing inside wasn’t for me to raise. I chose not to give into [sic] imaginations of sleeping with a baby on my chest, or playdates, having a child take their first steps to me. I was fortunate enough to have been attending counseling sessions at a crisis pregnancy center. There I was able to talk with other moms who placed their baby for adoption. I knew the most painful days were still yet ahead of me.
The pain of loss was real. It hurt! I cried! I went through pregnancy but my arms were empty!
That was many years ago, and yet there is a lump in my throat as I write this now. The pain of loss will always be felt, but for me, it’s different as the years go by.
Louise’s support for her grieving process only began in the days and weeks following the adoption. Those were critical times, to be sure. Reassurance for her decision was vital. Acknowledgment of her deep pain had to happen. Comments like, “Well, at least you won’t have to potty train the baby,” would be detrimental rather than helpful.
She would find more comfort in companionship, words of understanding, and even thoughtful opportunities to begin diverting her thoughts to her own healing. Like many situations where a child is lost, her pain is not something she will “get over” in a few months. It literally becomes a part of her. In the months, and even years ahead, it can be helpful to still speak of the child and give reassurance that the child is doing great.
The process of a divorce affects the whole family. Symptoms of grief are often not associated with the process, but they are usually there. One of those issues can be the loss of children. This can be either through the physical separation or even through losing a child custody case.
Years after his divorce, Michael’s former wife filed for full custody of their two teenage sons. He lost. Michael described his loss:
My God, I am losing both my kids at once. Gone … across the country. I will never be a part of their day to day lives again. Everything I had is gone. I am now the relatives they visit for a vacation. Every part of their lives that I participated in has now been severed irrevocably. Each time I see them the loss is displayed before my eyes. Changes in growth, physically, mentally, differences in attitudes … each time I see them they are different people, with shades and shadows of the kids I knew before. The kids I knew, the kids I raised, my sons … are gone. God, why not take my arms and legs, my eyes … why my kids? Take it all. Take everything I have. Leave my kids. Every text, every e-mail, every phone call, every Skype session, makes my loss more real. Reopening the wound, salt, alcohol, peroxide … They move on with their lives. Activities, sports, girls, learning to drive, prom, school … the calls get less, Skype sessions cease, texts are rarely returned because they have moved on with their lives leaving me behind. Anger, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards the one who caused this to occur, the one who uprooted them, the one who took them from all they knew and loved and moved them to a place with no friends and family other than the one who took them except on rare occasions. Everything points to the holes in your life. I coached them and their team… That’s gone. The games, the plays, taking them to their friends, running your life around your kid’s activities, everything severed, cut off, burned … lost. Emptiness … pain ….
Supporting a grieving parent who has experienced the loss of a child will feel unending. Your understanding will mean a lot. Be prepared to care for them through many emotional ups and downs and even some false starts in the recovery process. A non-critical ear may be just the thing they need most to make it through a moment or day of grief. Heart comments will often be more helpful than logical statements.
“I’ve never been where you are so I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I would like to hear about your process of loss,” can be a great way to help a hurting parent move towards a place of freedom.
The number of abortions in our society has risen drastically over the last several decades. It’s been documented that emotional stress can be experienced, hence the growing pool of potential hurting men and women. If you are or know someone who has had an abortion either recently, or in the distant past, the grieving process is still very real. Like many losses, grief from an abortion can be “stuffed” down, embraced or spread out over a lifetime. Being aware of these options can help you be of great healing assistance to one experiencing it.
“I don’t know how anyone could ever kill their baby,” can be very hurtful or condemning when said in the presence of one who has experienced an abortion. Long-term sensitivity to grieving parents is a must. Helping someone in the depths of grieving an abortion will need to include concepts of forgiveness. Forgiveness may be needed from friends and relatives, from the unborn child, and even themselves. Understanding God’s grace and forgiveness may be a beginning. Your understanding ear can be an important part of their victory.
One loss of a child that is often played down too much is that of a miscarriage. Friends and relatives can be cold or even rude by either ignoring the pain process or demanding one short-change the grieving process. We need to view this as a full-blown loss.
The mother in miscarriage cases does not suffer alone. The father can experience a variety of hurts that need to be processed. In his article “A Father’s Story: Mourning the Baby We Never Had,” Ian Wallach explained some responses he heard about:
A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn’t want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they’d moved apartments to escape the baby’s room they had created. He said he took no time off from work — not a single day — yet still didn’t understand why he’d misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.
Your help for parents who have experienced a miscarriage needs to be long term. Allowing time alone to grieve helps, but don’t be afraid to talk about it with them in months and even years later. A good suggestion you can make would be for the grieving parents to have a funeral. It will help a bit to bring closure for them. I also suggest you include the lost baby when referring to the number of children they have.
Mother’s Day can be a hard day for some. Older, single people who would like to be married and have children but don’t can view Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as a reminder of their personal disappointment and feelings of failure in the family area. The day that celebrates their missing role can trigger grief that doesn’t seem to go away.
Shawn and Jenn are long-time friends of my family. Their life has been very fulfilled since their marriage many years ago, including a strong relationship with each other and a very productive career together in a religious non-profit organization. One thing is missing for them. They have no children.
Jenn offered some candid comments regarding their journey of hope and disappointment towards having children in their personal blog:
It’s complicated. And there’s no time frame. The broken heart can’t always be defined, but it’s there. And the smallest little thing can stir it all back up. There’s the lie that nobody cares and that people are tired of hearing about it. There’s the lie that we’ll be old and lonely and still aching for those six babies we never got to hold, raise: the legacy that never was. It’s hard and it hurts. It’s grief, loss, doubt, and sometimes guilt, smashed in some weird, oddly shaped box. A big part of the grieving process after IVF [in vitro fertilization] (x3) is knowing that you’ve done ALL you can using the most advanced medical treatments and procedures and surgeries. It’s taking two steps towards closure, accepting that you will be ‘the couple without kids,’ and then falling backwards at the thought of Christmas mornings with just the two of us – forever.
MURDER AND SUICIDE
Violent deaths are always traumatic. In the event of a child’s violent death, whether their life was taken by themselves or others, breadth is added to the sorrow. Horror and deep regret multiply the pain. The scope of this grief swells up as often unexplainable by many parents.
In an interview by Timothy C. Morgan on March 28, 2014, Kay Warren attempts to put her loss into words. She and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, had lost a son to suicide one year earlier:
Because of our love, we conceived a child together. I birthed him from my body. He was a part of me. A part of me is no longer here. How can I be the same? For us as a couple, as a family, there were five of us; now there are four. Our child murdered himself in the most raw way I can tell you. Suicide is self-murder. Our son, the murderer, was himself. The trauma of knowing what he did to himself, how he destroyed the body of this child that we loved. He did it to end the pain. How could we ever be the same? Trauma changes you. I can’t ever go back to who I was. (Christianity Today)
As you come alongside parents in this form of grief, you will need to accept the fact that their hurt will be long term. In fact, you would be better prepared to help them if you expected their grief to increase for a time instead of subsiding. Beware of verbiage that pushes them to “get over it.” The goal for a bereaved parent is getting through the process, not getting over it. Consolation of having other children, if this is true, is no comfort for the one lost.
Often simple statements of your continued friendship and support will do more good than attempts to make their hurt go away. Keep contact with them through social media and texting if impromptu visits seem out of place. Showing them your support will be more meaningful than saying it.
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WHAT TO SAY TO A MOURNER
The moment of greeting a mourner is indeed difficult. What are the words of comfort? Can I help to ease the pain? I want to express my condolences sincerely, but the words seem so inadequate. Or, perhaps I will say the wrong thing- something I intend to be well-meaning – but is received as hurtful?
WHAT CAN I SAY?
In the Bible, we learn from the example of three friends who come to comfort Job as he grieves for his ten children: “And they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great. After this, Job began to speak…” (Job 2:12-13) Jewish tradition derived three principles of comforting the mourner from this text: BE THERE, SPEAK IN SILENCE and HEAR WITH A HEART.
If there is one fundamental message of Judaism about death and bereavement it is this: We are not alone. When a loved one dies, the
feeling of being alone is overwhelming. That is why the goal of Jewish comforting is to surround the mourner with a supportive community. Be there. Be there at the funeral. Be there at the shiva home. Be there during the difficult days, weeks, and months ahead. Without a word, your presence says “I am here for you. You are not alone.”
SPEAK IN SILENCE
Ironically, silence is often the most powerful language of all. It is perhaps the best way to begin a conversation with a mourner. A warm embrace, an arm around a shoulder, a sincere look, the sharing of tears together – these are the non-verbal messages to the bereaved that say more than a thousand words. Jewish tradition suggests that comforters say nothing until the mourner begins to speak. Let the mourner take the lead. Some will want to talk, to tell the story, to share their feelings. Some will not. Do not fear silence. Offer a hug, a hand, a touch that says “I understand. ‘I accept your feelings another way you are expressing them. Go ahead. I’ll be here for you.“
HEAR WITH A HEART
There is great power in presenting yourself to the mourning as an empathetic listener. Real hearing is silent – no interruptions, no judgments, no denials, no problem-solving – just hearing with the heart .
This is not easy to do. We all want to fix things. We all want to make things better. We all want to take the grief away. But we cannot. Nor should we try. For when we do, we often say the wrong thing:
“Time will heal. ”
“I know exactly how you feel. ”
“It’s probably for the best.” “Be strong.”
“What my mother went through when she died…”
“You’re young. You’ll have another child. ”
“It’ll be all right. ”
For most bereaved, it is definitely not “all right.” A loved one has died and the grief-work must proceed for the person to be psychologically healed. One of the most important gifts you can give to a mourner is the full, complete and non-judgmental acceptance of the person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, no matter how explosive, no matter how “embarrassing,” no matter how much you wane desperately to reassure the mourner that things will be better. It is the mourner who must do the grief-work, not you. It is the mourner who must come up with answers, not you.
It is the mourner who must speak, not you.
WHAT YOU CAN SAY
You have come to the shiva home. You have offered your nonverbal greeting. Now comes the awkward moment when you have to say something. What can I say? Here are a few suggestions for opening a conversation with a mourner:
“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
“I’m so sorry about your (mother; brother; etc. or name the deceased)”
“I don’t know what to say. This must be really tough for you.”
“I hurt for you ”
“(Name the deceased) loved you so much.”
“I hope you can hold on to the good memories.”
”Do you feel like talking?”
If the answer to the last question is “no,” suggest another time. Often mourners are too exhausted to talk. Or, they may be tired. of telling the same story over and over again. On the other hand, if they indicate a willingness to talk, you may want to ask a simple “What happened?”
As the mourner talks, keep in mind these suggestions for helpful conversations
Listen non-judgmentally. Mourners don’t want to be told their feelings are wrong.
Pay attention. Give your undivided attention. Try to get on eye-level with the mourner, establish eye contact, lean forward, hold hands, nod your head and use nonverbal expressions to encourage the mourner to continue the conversation.
Don’t interrupt. Give the bereaved all the time he or she needs to speak without jumping in to finish a thought or to hurry the
Don’t give rational answers. The death of a loved one cannot be explained away with logic.
Don’t compare experiences. Grief is not a competitive. The last thing a mourner wants to hear about is your loss. Some mourners do feel a connection with someone whose loved one went through a similar illness and death, but if you must speak of your loss, it’s important to qualify your comments with the statement, “I can’t know how you feel, but when my…”
You may also want to offer your help, but make a specific suggestion: “Can I bring dinner tomorrow?” is a much better approach than the vague “Is there anything I can do?”
Many of us have been in shiva homes where there was more talk about the news, sports and weather, more sharing of gossip and jokes, than memories of the deceased. We do this in part because we are uncomfortable with death and grief. But we also do this because we aren’t sure what is appropriate conversation in the home of a mourner.
The rabbis who created the Jewish approach to bereavement knew that there would be talk of death, but they also wanted talk of life. Specifically, talk of the life of the deceased. The eulogy at the funeral is designed precisely for this purpose – to stimulate a life-review and to conjure up memories of the loved one.
Those who seek to comfort can continue this process by sharing personal memories of special times with the mourner and the deceased: “I remember when you and your mother went with us to the theater…” Or, recall a favorite characteristic of the deceased: “I’ll never forget what a generous man your father was…” When the time is right, you might even share a humorous incident. The laughter, though bitter sweet, can be very therapeutic for the mourner. If you did not know the deceased, ask the mourner about photos or other mementos that may be displayed in the home.
Enabling the mourner to share these stories helps them crystallize and record fond memories of the deceased in the heart and mind. This is one of the major goals of the bereavement period. It is also one of the most comforting things we can do.
WHAT CAN I BRING?
When making a condolence call, it is appropriate to bring a token of your support. During the shiva bereavement period, it is customary for the community to enable the mourners to concentrate on their grief by providing for their sustenance. This explains why gifts of food are often brought to the home where the shiva is being held. Cakes and cookies are popular choices, although one should inquire about the level of kashrut observed in the home. A safe choice for any home is a fruit basket. Flowers, liquor and candy are usually considered too festive for a house of mourning. A meaningful and much appreciated alternative to food is to make a donation in memory of the deceased to a charity designated by the mourners.
WHAT CAN I WRITE?
Condolence letters are another source of comfort to mourners. The words of sympathy and memory are welcome reminders to the bereaved that you are thinking about them. A good condolence letter acknowledges the loss and names the deceased, uses words of sympathy that share your sorrow, notes special qualities of the deceased, recalls a memory about the deceased, reminds the bereaved of their personal strengths, and offers specific help.
~ What Can I Say / Words of Comfort was written by Dr. Ron Wolfson
Dr. Ron Wolfson is Vice President, Director of the Shirley and Arthur Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, and William and Freda Fingerhut Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Judaism. He is the author of A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort in The Art of Jewish Living series published by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the University of Judaism (1994).
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