My guinea pig “Pepper” was a male when we brought her home. I guess it’s hard to tell with rodents. She gave birth to twins a few weeks later. “Peppermint” died the next year. My parents took my grief seriously, which helped.
Live long enough and you’ll experience responses that don’t help. You may even offer a few well-intentioned bits of encouragement that miss the mark. When others face grief, how can we be sure to help and not hurt?
The classic “stages of grief” marked by certain emotions provide great insight but not much of a map. Emotions that follow loss are more of a swirl than a sequence. One of my favorite professors outlined a more accurate progression— crisis, crucible, and constructive.1
“Why do they call it heartbreak when my whole body feels broken?” – Overheard
Recently I smashed my thumb moving a couch. It hurt for just a second and then went numb. I thought, “Just you wait.” Likewise after a sudden loss, it’s normal for shock to dull emotional pain. For a little while.
Numbness can make people appear rationale—even at peace. But imagine a duck in a pond, calm on the surface but a frenzy of legs underneath. Did I really leave my keys on the dash? Will I sleep tonight?” “I’m not sure whether I ate lunch or care.“
What helps in this stage?
Show up. Say little. Stay in the true lane of your relationship. Keep checking in but with few words. Our instinct is to ease pain and suffering with words. But it can lead to predictable statements that are more about feeling helpful than actually being helpful—
He’s in a better place.
At least you have your other children.
God must have needed another angel.
Joseph Baly in his book, The Last Thing we Talk About, gives some insight about the right approach. He contrasts his experience of two friends who dropped by after his child died.
“I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I knew were true. But I was unmoved, except to wish he would go away. He finally did. Another friend came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour or more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”
If the first three rules of real estate are about location, then the first three rules in the crisis stage of grief are about listening. Show up. Speak less. Stay in their moment.
The only cure for grief is to grieve.” – Earl Grollman
This phase begins some weeks or months after living with the loss. Unlike phase one where emotions come in waves, in the crucible stage, confusing questions linger. And emotions can be harder to discern.
I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses…feeling after feeling…that had H. for their object. Now their target is gone.C.S. Lewis
It’s not unusual for guilt to rise in this phase. Guilt for things said and done or left unsaid and undone. A person may gravitate towards these feelings to avoid anger or despair. Haddon Robinson pictures this stage like Gulliver taken captive by the Lilliputians (little people). Giant Gulliver is bound to the earth by a thousand threads.
Likewise, the emotional ties of grief tangle us in anniversaries, fragrances, and songs. “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” Tennyson famously reminds us. But that conclusion came after a long season of letting go. At one point in the same elegy he says, “Let love clasp grief lest both be drowned.” He feared memory would fade with pain, cutting him off from his friend more completely. The crucible phase can push people to their limits.
“Grief is the price we pay for love.” Queen Elizabeth II
One bit of nonsense you’ll hear from time to time is, “God never puts on us more than we can handle.” Platitudes like this cannot bring lasting comfort. And comfort itself may skirt past what pain can do, namely, lead us to a mustard seed of trust.
An incident as minor as hitting your funny bone can lead to major questions about who’s running the universe. Some things may never make sense on this side eternity. But it’s often in places of confusion where God begins to make more sense of us. And to be adjusted may require additional but necessary discomfort.
Twice I’ve had to put someone’s shoulder back into socket. I wished I’d had another option because it was not pleasant for either of us. In each case, the person resisted. The one thing they didn’t want me to do was the very thing that needed to be done.
Job did not adjust to his loss so much as he submitted to being adjusted. He learned to trust God again after releasing Him from Job’s box of unanswered questions. In the process, he discovered God was never bound. Job had bound himself.
Job flings at God one riddle, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums.G.K. Chesterton
Human nature resists getting back to this place of yielded peace. Broken dreams give us an excuse to accuse and even reject God. But the fact that there’s no peace down that road is an important chunk of the puzzle that brings comfort. That moment when we let God know something we don’t.
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35).