It’s not our job to make tragedy a classroom. It’s our job to create a refuge.
A couple years ago, we were serving a young couple who had just lost their two-year-old son “John” to cancer. The day of John’s funeral came, attracting a number of his parent’s friends from both work and church who were there – not because they knew John (he had spent a good part of his life in the hospital) – but because they wanted to support his parents.
The viewing started, people began filing through the funeral home, and all of a sudden, I saw that John’s mother was missing from the receiving line. I looked around the funeral home and found her back in our office, crying. Without me asking what was wrong she blurted out, “I hate this. And I hate what people are telling me. This didn’t happen for a reason. God doesn’t have a plan in this. And thinking about John in heaven doesn’t make me feel any better. I want him here with me now.”
I didn’t have anything to say. So I waited in silence for her to say what she needed to say. I didn’t introject my own thoughts, many as they may be (I do have a grad degree in theology and a certification in thanatology). I didn’t diminish her feelings. Even though I felt slightly uncomfortable as a sounding board for her frustrations, I didn’t say anything. I did what I’ve learned to do over years of comforting grieving people: I allowed her space to say what she needed to say. I listened.
After she was done saying what she needed to say, she asked me, “Do you have some coffee?”
“I don’t, but if you tell me what you want I’ll go to Dunkin Donuts and get it for you.”
“Medium hot coffee with cream and four sugars.”
For various reasons, we like to use death as a classroom; one of life’s major learning experience that affords those who are experiencing it some valuable lessons. And death can be a classroom, but let’s be clear about one thing: you are NEVER the teacher. It’s not your job to interpret tragedy with platitudes like “this happened for a reason” and “God has a plan.” If anything, it’s our job to create a sanctuary, a refuge where those who are grieving can say what they need to say, do what they need to do, and know that no matter what, we are there for them, listening to them and loving them.
Sometimes, the bereaved use their grief as a platform. That is their right. If your son dies from gang violence and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to say what you need to say. If your daughter dies from an overdose, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to do what you need to do. If your mom dies from cancer, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. And I’ll respect it.
If your classmates die during a school shooting, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. It’s your right to use your experience of grief as a platform, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Even if it makes others angry. Even if it’s a politically charged topic. And I’ll respect it because I’m not here to set up a classroom and tell you what you need to think, how you need to feel and what you need to do. I’m here to give you space to think what you need, feel how you want, and do what you need to do.
We provide the refuge for the grieving. We provide the space for them to say what they need to say. And we listen. Because if death is ever a classroom, the bereaved are the ones who have the right to teach.
I watched in horror as the details unfolded surrounding the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Seventeen students. Dead.
I can’t imagine the terror. I don’t want to imagine what the student body experienced during the six-minute shooting spree. And I hope that I never know the pain and horror of being a parent who suddenly loses their child to a school shooting.
On March 24th, 2018 some student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lead March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control.
Let me be clear: This is a legitimate expression of grief.
Let me also be clear: It’s not our job to tell these kids how they SHOULD be expressing their various expressions of grief.
It’s not our job to diminish their frustration and anger. It’s not our job to question their motives, poke fun at their supposed “liberal stupidity”, or threaten them in any shape or form.
Like the woman who was crying in my office, it might make the rest of us uncomfortable, we might have a lot of opinions about what they’re saying. But this is their time. And I’m going to give them refuge just like I do every week at the funeral home. I’m going to listen, just like I do every week at the funeral home. And if they want me to do something, I’ll hear them out, just like I do every week at my job.