The sudden death of my first cousin from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1966 was the most traumatic and life-shaping event in my own family’s history. A 22-year-old college senior with a promising future in physics, he dropped dead while playing basketball in a PE class.
I was 15.
Ours was a tightly woven extended family. The cousins were more like siblings and aunts and uncles were more like extra moms and dads. To say his death wracked us up would be an understatement.
After many years, I asked my aunt what she found helpful as she experienced her grief.
“Two things,” she said, “Work and being able to talk about him.” But, then she added, “I had a lot more of the first than of the second.”
My aunt worked for the Hubbard’s Pants Company as a seamstress. All-day long, she sewed pockets into men’s pants. Pocket after pocket, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. She lost herself in the rattle of sewing machines and the repetitive ritual at hand.
But, the opportunities to talk about her son came few and far between.
“Nobody wants to hear about it after a certain point,” she said. “They just move on and leave you alone with your grief.”
She went on to tell me about the time she introduced herself to the new preacher at her church. “He walked up to me and introduced himself. I told him who I was, how long I had been at the church and all that. He asked me about my family.”
She mentioned that she had lost her only child several years before. She told him how it happened.
“And, do you know what he said?” she asked me. “He said, ‘Huh…that’s tough.”
“That’s it. ‘Huh…that’s tough.‘ Then, he just moved on to the next person.”
She leaned toward me and said, “Let me tell you something, preacher…When a bereaved mother wants to talk about her deceased son, you let her talk all she wants to!”
I have thought a lot about why we find it so difficult to allow the grieving to talk about the one they lost. I don’t think it is because we don’t care about their loss or their grief. While it may be because we don’t want to get caught up in a long story because ‘we have miles to go before we sleep,’ I don’t think that is the real reason.
I think it is because we believe that allowing the grieving to talk about their loved one will only open up their box of sorrows and make them sadder as they remember. But that’s only a part of it.
I think we suffer from a fear of tears.
“What if they cry? What if they cry uncontrollably? What would I say? What would I do?”
If I’m right about that (and maybe I’m not!), then that means that the reason we don’t open the door for the grieving to share the story of their loved one is that we fear that we will feel powerless in the moment. And why do we fear that?
Because the feeling of powerlessness is the defining characteristic of suffering.
We don’t want to listen because we don’t want to suffer.
But then how will we ever bring comfort to a powerless, suffering person if we ourselves are afraid of our own powerlessness, our own suffering.
To truly ‘come alongside‘ the grieving, we must be willing to open ourselves to their powerlessness and be powerless with them.
I started this series of posts on coming alongside the grieving after one of my long-loved -friend’s son passed away this past Christmas Eve. The other day she posted something on Facebook that reminded me of my conversation with my aunt, who died 19 years ago. (She was followed by her sister, my mother, 6 days later. They went everywhere together.)
My friend posted:
“In this new year,
I promise to keep your memory alive by
speaking your name,
telling your story,
That’s exactly what she should do, what she must do. She does not want her son to be forgotten. She does not want to be left standing and holding her grief alone while the rest of us just move on.
I wrote her back, and though I didn’t tell her the story of my aunt and the preacher, I shared with her something I try to say anytime a mother (or a father) tells me that they have lost a child (or anyone for that matter):
“What is his name and what did you love about him?”
I believe we do not simply saunter up to the grieving. I believe we are led there, called there. If we let our fear of tears keep us from offering hospitality to another’s grief, we will have not only have failed the grieving, we will have failed our calling.