Rocky Balboa said, “I got gaps and Adrienne’s got gaps; but together we ain’t got no gaps.” Human beings are uncomfortable with gaps. Ever notice how much can happen during a timeout at a ball game? We tend to fill spaces and speak into silences. But not every question can be answered with words.
When grief leaves a gap, again, we instinctively want to do or say something. It is a rare gift to a grieving heart when someone shows up or steps up, but not to fix. Words can hurt or heal, so consider these four tips.
Respect the gap
Planners of the 9-11 memorial in Manhattan thoughtfully preserved the footprints of the two towers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains the value of such empty spaces. In 1945 from a Nazi prison camp he wrote:
Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with one another may be kept alive even at the cost of pain.
In our anxious, fix-it age, much can be gained in the humility of empty spaces. Respect the gap.
Keep words off wounds
We don’t expect words to heal a broken arm faster. Yet many people feel pressure to make a broken heart heal faster. That urgency can lead us to say and do things that hurt rather than help.
Don’t say: “He’s in a better place.”
Say: “He was so special.”
Don’t say: “It was just his time.”
Say: “We’ll miss him.”
Don’t say: Everything happens for a reason.
Say: When you’re ready, I’ll listen.
Don’t say: I know how you feel.
Say: I can’t imagine how you feel.
Don’t say: Call me if you need anything.
Say: I will call soon to check on you.
Don’t say: “At least…”
Say: “I wish I knew what to say.”
Leo Buscaglia once ran a contest to find a story of the most caring child. The winner was about a boy whose next-door neighbor, an elderly gentleman, had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man’s sadness, the boy went onto his porch, climbed onto his lap and just sat there. When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” Compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Empathy understands, but true compassion helps bear the burden.
After the death of his fiancé, songwriter Billy Sprague wrote:
On the ocean so lonesome, I was not left alone
Had some heavyweight friends when my heart was a stone
They carried the heartache and made it their own
When the currents of sorrow were strong.
Hold onto Hope
In a fallen world, things fall apart. If we can’t make sense of it, then we often find someone to blame. That’s futile. Justice may be required, but it cannot undo suffering. Eventually our hearts figure that out.
So what are we to make of the gaps? Is there purpose in suffering? C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain is God’s megaphone to wake up a sleeping world.” Sometimes in places of mystery, the heart can find reasons which reason cannot supply. Sometimes at the end of our rope we find a not called “hope.”
Why would we feel so unsettled in a world where things fall apart unless we were made for more? This question implies a hunger for something that transcends. Genuine faith, hope, and love play a role here. Genuine faith does not pretend-away the painful gap of death. Genuine faith is not a painkiller or a coping mechanism. Genuine faith admits that death is an enemy, but with confidence it has already been vanquished.
“We grieve, but not as ones without hope” (1 Thess. 4:13-18)