When my mother died, a childhood friend gave me The Grief Recovery Handbook, by John James and Russell Friedman. In it, the authors, claim that this discomfort is ubiquitous in our culture. We cope by projecting onto the bereaved our own discomfort. For example, I may see someone in tears and abandon her, saying, “She needs her space.” But I didn’t ask her. Instead, I felt awkward when she started crying, rationalized that “she needs her space” and excused myself. Instead of gratitude for “space,” this bereft person may feel confused and abandoned that I left when she was crying.
The reason we have such ineffectual responses to grief, according to James and Friedman, is that we are inadequately trained. Our lack of training is due to our culture’s disregard of such skills. In contrast, they say, look at the training we get for cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR. It’s offered in virtually every workplace. I’m certified. CPR’s a household word. However, the authors ask, which are we more likely to encounter: an individual whose heart has stopped beating, or an individual who is crying? Yet we typically get no training for the latter, except for our upbringing.
We mean well, but often our tools are inadequate to the task. Further, James and Friedman say that most of us live with some level of uncomforted grief. And uncomforted grief is incomplete grief. It lingers, accumulates with each loss, and intrudes into normal, daily life.
Therefore, with the best of intentions, we say the same things to the bereaved that have been said to us:
· “She’s in a better place.”
· “It’s for the best.”
· “You can get another cat.”
· Or, in the case of divorce, “You’ll find someone else.”
At funerals we often emphasize that we are celebrating the life of the departed. However, the concept of a funeral being a celebration can sometimes be complex. To paraphrase the psalm we heard earlier: How can I sing a song of celebration in this foreign land of bereavement?
I know that I have probably told a bereaved person that the beloved was in a better place. I don’t know why, but that phrase is getting a bad rap from me today! I may have said it because I was uncomfortable in the presence of such pain and wanted the pain to go away. However, I know now that my comments may have been out of place. Without realizing it, I changed the subject from the mourner’s emotion to an intellectual discussion of the afterlife. By changing the subject, I implied that those sad feelings and the open expression of them were inappropriate. However, according to James and Friedman, it is my remarks that may be both unsuitable and injurious to the grieving process.
To get an idea of how out of place these clichés are, listen to the voice of raw bereavement, as expressed by the poet W. H. Auden in the poem “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It is obvious to me, after hearing such a volcanic expression of sadness, how selfish and unkind it is to follow any urge on my part to divert the griever by discussing the afterlife at this moment. How much more healing would I offer if I only said, “I am here,” and then just let the grief proceed?
How do we find ways to comfort effectively? By being family for each other. One way we are family for each other at University Baptist Church is with our prayer shawls. Several people here knit prayer shawls without knowing who will receive the shawls that they make. Our pastor then can give a shawl to someone who is burdened, someone whom the Holy Spirit lays on his heart. I have received a prayer shawl.
When at their best, families also pass on good traditions by telling stories. Take the example of our featured peacemaker today, Edwin Dahlberg. I am sure the Dahlbergs will long remember the 87-year-old grandfather who hopped on a Greyhound to cheer up his granddaughter. I want to pass on two more stories of truly effective consolation and to hear your stories, as well.
The first is about my great-grandmother’s favorite cousin Bertha. In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, my great-grandfather Lee Hanes died of diabetes-related complications. The grocery store that he had run in Shawnee, Oklahoma, had closed, and he had struggled to make ends meet as the county tag agent. His three grown sons were single, out of work, and living at home. There was no Social Security. My great-grandmother, or Grandmother Hanes, had to use his life insurance claim to support her sons as well as herself. She collapsed under the stress and had a nervous breakdown. She stayed in bed for months and wept. No one was able to console her.
The sons wrote to cousin Bertha in Kansas and asked her to come and help their mother. Bertha came and stayed. I’ve never heard of any words that Bertha said. The main thing is that she came and stayed. She stayed for three months. She knew that Grandmother Hanes, or her cousin Mattie, was an elegant crochet artist. This piece in the pineapple stitch is an example of her work.
Bertha helped Mattie remember what she loved and encouraged her to crochet an afghan, a beautiful, multi-colored throw with interlocking squares. After Mattie finished the afghan, she got out of bed and resumed her life. Bertha eventually went back to Kansas. Grandmother Hanes lived for another 25 years. She was fully present, even crocheting, until the day she died. Bertha was an accomplished comforter. Her mourner completed her grief. To this very day, that beautiful afghan sits in my Aunt Dorothy’s house in Oklahoma City.
The second story is from my time as a labor companion, about 20 years ago. The mother I was helping had a complicated situation. The season of the year was Thanksgiving. A year before, almost to the day, the mother had lost a full-term baby in a stillbirth, and she herself had almost died. Now, exactly a year later, she was in labor again. This labor had been crawling along for several hours.
A nurse came quietly into the room, but she was not the assigned nurse. She said to the mother, “I just want you to know that I was here last year, and I remember you.”
The mother said, “I remember you, too.”
After a pause, the nurse said, “Your baby was very pretty.” She called the baby who had died by name. And then she cried. The mother cried, too. After awhile the nurse said, “We all hated to lose her.”
After a few minutes of silence and more crying, the nurse hugged the mother, offered a few words of best wishes for the birth that was currently in progress, and left. Soon after that, the mother began having strong, effective contractions, followed rather quickly by the urge to push. A few minutes after the nurse’s visit, the mother gave birth to a live, red-faced baby boy.
My own losses have taught me a key principle that James and Friedman stress about grief: each loss is unique because each relationship is unique.
My father’s death affected me very differently from that of my mother. Daddy had Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, and congestive heart failure. He had lived in a nursing home for four years. It had been a long time since I had had a meaningful conversation with him. At the funeral, when the minister said, “Jim Moyer is now restored of all infirmity,” I found that comforting. His passing was truly a relief.
There was nothing relieving about my mother’s death. Even though she was frail and in a state of decline, she was completely engaged in the world. We had long phone conversations about nothing every Sunday afternoon. She had been in the hospital with an acute illness and then transferred to the short-term wing of her senior center’s nursing home. She was there for nine days and her discharge was planned for the following week. One day she fell getting out of bed. She had no fractures, but the nurse was concerned about her breath sounds and ordered an x-ray. Mom died before the x-ray, 30 minutes after her fall. To our knowledge, her last words were, “Has someone called Paula to let her know that I fell?”
There was nothing relieving about my mother’s death.
Quite the opposite.
Until recently, I would periodically dream I was talking with my mother, but then wake up to a slap of reality: Mother was dead. And then I would sob without consolation.
The grief often hit me during Christmas. I could just hear my parents playing carols, my mother on the piano and my father on the trombone, as they had done when I was growing up. When I started working at Macy’s, I could not bear to work in the children’s department. Often I would see the label of a particular brand of little girl clothes that my mother used to buy for me, and my eyes would film over. I felt like Auden: nothing now can ever come to any good.
Just this winter, during the Advent discussion groups led by Déadra, our seminary intern, my grief lifted. During one session, I allowed myself to think of what my life would be like if Mother were still living. What message, what conversation would I like to have? And then I realized that it really is true. All conversations, messages, wisdom I would like to get from Mother, live on in memory. She accomplished her mission and deserves to rest.
Now that my grief is complete, I can envision my mother in that better place, along with my father: they are young again, restored of all infirmity, and not worried about anything. I see them sitting on a big porch swing in Heaven, chatting and looking at birds. The scissortail flycatcher, the state bird of Oklahoma, was one of my parents’ favorites. In my view of Heaven, Mom and Dad get to see lots of scissortail flycatchers.
I got to this place of peace right on time. I hope to remember how different each walk with grief is when I am called upon to be a comforter.
Tears, sometimes accompanied by racking sobs, can be difficult to witness, but they help the grief move, keep it from stagnating. Jesus groaned and wept when he took in Lazarus’s death. And remember: some people in the crowd simply said: “Behold how he loved him.” They did not say, “But look how many friends you still have.” They simply stayed with him and let him cry.
We believe in the Resurrection, and our ability to lead changed lives gives witness to It. Therefore, we know that sorrow is finite, that the light of the world continues to glow, and the darkness has never overcome it. We don’t need to fear sorrow, either as mourners or as comforters. Sorrow will run its course and eventually come to completion. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, lives within us. We may need to learn some tips, but we can comfort. We can ask, “How can I help?” and then wait for the true answer.
Please pray with me as we close:
Holy God, wake us up to the Comforter that You sent and that dwells within us. Help us respond to sorrow with love, humility, and presence. You have already blessed those who mourn. May we act as Your messengers, so that mourners can lay claim to the beatitude’s promise and hope: they shall be comforted. Amen.