Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Too Great For Words

Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound. Proverbs 25:20 NLT

I recently stumbled on this verse during my bible time one day. I don’t remember reading it before though I know I have. I guess this time it really stood out to me because it so aptly summarizes one of the most challenging aspects of grief. I’ve struggled more with this issue than any other since losing Peter.

We live in a feel good culture. Instant gratification and sensual satisfaction dominate so much of peoples’ interests. Individually and as a nation, most spend for what we want regardless of whether the money exists. We gorge ourselves on foods that have no benefit other than taste; supersizing is the name of the game. How many people refuse to exercise regardless of the healthy benefits because they don’t enjoy it? The standard of quality in today’s culture comes from the amount of pleasure something brings, not whether it has lasting value. Everything in today’s world is about enjoying life and having fun.

But that clashes sharply with someone in grief. As today’s verse points out, immersing a heavy heart in a joyous setting just makes it worse. It magnifies the emptiness and absence of joy. The pain intensifies with the seeming inability of those around you to understand or empathize with your current state.

As I’ve walked through these past months, I know most people’s efforts to cheer me up come from our cultural norm to erase anything that doesn’t feel good. But you can’t simply erase or quickly fix a broken heart. People “know that” but yet they struggle to live it. They want to help, but unless they’ve been in a place of grief themselves, they don’t understand what is needed.

In the book of Job, we find a man who has suddenly lost all of his wealth, all of his servants, and all of his children on the same day. His situation gets more dire when he suddenly gets afflicted with boils. Overwhelmed with physical pain on top of the emotional pain, he sits on a pile of ashes alone. In chapter 2 we find three friends who come to comfort him when they learn of his tragedy. Verses 12 – 13 read, “When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”

What I love about this passage is how the friends came and entered into Job’s grief. They didn’t try to fix it. They didn’t try to cheer him up. They simply sat with him, not saying a word. They were simply present. Those who know the story know that the trouble starts when the friends start to talk. They try to explain things to thus fix the situation to ease Job’s suffering. Instead they make it worse with their lack of understanding and false accusations. But for the first seven days they do the right thing.

In our culture, the tendency is the same. Fix it or distract from it so the person feels better. But what I find as I traverse this road a second time, is that running from the grief does not heal it. Like a blistering wound, you must tend it gently, frequently, removing the infectious build up, and apply healing balm. Yes it’s repetitive, and yes it’s painful. But to neglect it slows the healing and worsens the scarring. Proper care is necessary.

For me that means there are days I need to cry. There are situations I need to avoid. There are pictures I need to review and memories I need to relive. As others go on with their life around me, I need to stand still. I need to remember because others forget. I need to go slowly. I need to heal.

When we lost Andrew, the first year was so hard because we had to face everything without him. And most people understood and expected the grief to be present. But the second year surprised me. For though the rest of the world had moved on and had new focuses, our pain still dominated our horizon, infiltrated every aspect of our life. I’m not the only one either. Most every person I’ve talked to that has lost a significant person in their life agrees the second year is the hardest because everyone else has forgotten and moved on without them. It’s not until the third year that enough time has passed, enough experience gained at handling the sudden random onslaught of grief, that you start to feel like a participant in life once again. Knowing this, as I’m not yet even through my first year without Peter, is a bit depressing.

Friends, if you know someone grieving, know the best thing you can do for them is to enter where they are. Don’t try to bring them to where you are. Be present. Sit with them. Listen. Remember together. Cry and laugh over the memories together. Share their anguish. Don't expect their world to quickly return to normal. Don't let the object of their loss be forgotten.

If you are the person grieving, I know you don’t have the energy for much, but for your closest friends, try to communicate this. They love you and want to help. But in our fast paced feel good world, they don’t understand how unless they’ve been in your very shoes themselves. I’m not good at this. As a friend helped me understand last week, I’m a runner. Yes, I enjoy exercise :) but this means that I run from difficult relationships instead of face them or deal with them. In my own lack of energy I’ve isolated myself at times or shut the door on well meaning people, retreating to those who already get it and thus make it easier for me. But having a trail of broken friendships only adds to the grief. It’s worth the effort to try.

Ecclesiastes declares there is a time for everything. The list includes a time to grieve and a time to dance. If you’re grieving, know that you will one day dance again. But give yourself the time you need to grieve. You can’t hear the music until you’re healed. And if you are the friend of someone grieving, be willing to take off your dancing shoes and sit. Be willing to share the pain to make their burden lighter. Not by cheering them up, but by adding tears of your own.

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