Mourners Dare to Imagine what Others are Feeling
Today’s reflections on the recent shootings in Aurora, CO. come from Don Follis, a pastor in Champaign-Urbana, IL.
At 7:30 am my wife and I took the boat across Jenny Lake and hiked 7 miles up Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude in Grand Teton National Park in Northwestern Wyoming. From Lake Solitude, high above tree line, you can view the back side of the majestic Teton Range and bask in the wonder of creation.
As we drove back to our campsite I turned on the radio and heard the news of the horrific shootings in Aurora, CO. I was shocked. Life is so fragile. Idyllic, serene Lake Solitude – a perfect name given its location – gave way to the stunning news of the senseless killings and maiming in an Aurora theater. Feelings of appreciation and wonder earlier in the day suddenly collided with emotions of tension, mystery, paradox and complexity.
A few days later I was standing on the western shore of Lake MacDonald in northern Montana’s Glacier National Park when I overhead two men discussing the Aurora tragedy.
“It was pure evil,” one man said. “There is nothing else to say.”
The other man was intent on blaming guns. “Why is it so easy to buy guns?” he said. “Can’t we as a nation do anything about this? I’ll tell you this country needs a national discussion about how easy it is to buy firearms.”
The man who spoke first sighed. “The poor young man who did this is just sick, just very, very sick. How utterly senseless. It makes me so sad for all those innocent people and their grieving families.”
Now he’s getting somewhere, I thought. Later that day I turned to the beatitudes and read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes said there is a time to weep and a time to mourn. The days following tragedies are times to mourn. Real mourning, true grieving, humbly says, “I am so sorry. I can only imagine how the families must feel who lost a loved one. I can only imagine how those who were maimed must feel. I can only imagine how the family members of the shooter must feel. This is so heartbreaking, so sad.”
Mourning does not say: “As horrific as this was, we know God works all things together for good, if we turn to him. Evil will not win the day. Now is the time to stand up and fight.” Those phrases may be true. But is that what you would want someone to say to you, if you had just tragically lost a loved one? I doubt it.
Neither does mourning say: “I’ll be there for you, whatever you need. You are in my prayers every single minute.” Well, maybe you will be there. Maybe you will pray for a while. But what are you really saying? Are you actually saying: “What happen scares me so much and I don’t know what to do. What if it was my child? I could never face this if it were me.”
Finally, mourning does not say: “I just can’t imagine what you are going through.” Really? Maybe you ought to try to imagine. A person who mourns never denies what happened. True mourning is not afraid of suffering. No, a person who truly mourns tries to imagine how another feels. Thus, you might say something like: “I’m so very sorry. I can only imagine how you are feeling.”
To imagine how a grief-stricken person feels takes intentionality. Imagine being the parent of one of those young people killed in the theater on that awful night in Aurora. Or imagine being the father or mother of the young man who did this awful deed.
“I don’t want to imagine that,” you say. “Please don’t make me. It’s too awful, too hard, too painful, and too scary. I can’t go there.” Well, okay. I certainly can’t make you. But you will not fully understand mourning unless you engage your imagination and your emotion. That’s what mourning is. You enter right into the middle of the grief-stricken person’s world. Are you afraid of crying? You may cry. You think you might blubber or sigh or moan? You might. Are you afraid that giving yourself emotionally to mourning might feel scary? It will.
But mourning is a good thing, Jesus says. Comfort comes to those who mourn. The Apostle Paul explains it when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.”
Now let’s say, for example, that your son or daughter hits a home run during a little league game. They are thrilled and so you are you. You scream, “My goodness sweetheart, that’s the best hit I’ve ever seen. What a slugger.” That’s rejoicing.
How does that make the son or daughter feel? Loved, naturally. They think, “My daddy thinks I’m the best thing ever.”
Now imagine you know a family who has experienced a tragic loss. Enter their world by imagining how they feel. You mourn by saying, “I can only imagine,” not “I can’t imagine.” You become focused and intentional about feeling painful emotions – grief, pain, loss and despair. You may begin weeping or sobbing as you try to say: “I am so sorry. I love you. I can only imagine your pain and loss.”
How do they feel when you join them in their pain and sorrow? They feel loved and cared for. When we enter another person’s painful emotional space, the person feels loved. The feeling of love is the same as it is for the child who hit the home run. That’s what it means to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
The grieving people in Aurora need love, not theological explanations. There is a time to weep and a time to mourn. Both are on the path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death. Don’t be afraid to walk on that path.
Don first worked as a campus pastor, then on the staff of a large Vineyard Church and now with pastors in a coaching and mentoring ministry.
He writes a popular Sunday column called “On Faith” for the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette.
Copyright 2012 by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Champaign, IL 61820.