A couple years ago we had a late night house call. We drove up to the house, and an uncle came outside to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.
“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.
She’s 16 years old.
Been fighting cancer for four years.
She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”
We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends that were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.
When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying. In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t to be found lying on it; which was very unusual. We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them. All families need this time. They need to believe that through their stories Sara would be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family. Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.
After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal. They all had said their last “good-bye”. And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”
“She’s here”, said Joan the mother. And then we saw her. When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan. The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms. But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid.
Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher. The room was full. Full of love. Full of grief. Full of tears. And I was a part of it all.
I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Let me explain the difference:
Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement. This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy. — Dr Nicola Davies
There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy. When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation. But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story. Not just a narrator, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.
Too often when child sponsorship programs like World Vision attempt to gain your support, they appeal to your sympathy. “Look at this poor, starved, naked child as he picks food out the dumpster. His distended stomach looks like a balloon and those flies around his face are the only friends he has.” Sympathy appeal, expected to make you go, “O.M.G. If I only spend $40 a month I can give him some rice and … maybe I’ll send him an iPad for Christmas.”
And sympathy works … it creates donors.
But I want to invite you to empathy.
Mother Teresa said, “Do you look … at the poor with compassion? They are hungry not only for the bread and rice, they are hungry to be recognized as human beings.” This “recognition” involves more than food, it involves
and food, agriculture and clean water.
All recognition factors that World Vision does in Guatemala and abroad.
In September I’m going with World Vision to Guatemala to visit a child that I sponsor. And I want you to sponsor a child as well (here’s a link to World Vision’s Charity Rating). In fact, my goal is to have 50 children sponsored by you, my readers.
So, I’m inviting you to empathy. I’m not selling you something or playing on your sympathy. No, I want you to get down on your knees, look into the eyes of someone you don’t know, learn about them and walk with them as they grow.
Enter a story.
Click here to sponsor a child in the village that I will be visiting. And, if you sponsor or not, help me reach my goal of 50 sponsorships by SHARING this post.
Ernest Becker proposes that depressed individuals (specifically those depressed from death) suffer both doubt in their faith and doubt their value within their worldview. In other words, grieving people often doubt God and they doubt His purpose for them.
Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
If you’re dealing with grief, your entire worldview is probably being challenged. It’s only natural that we attempt to seek council in such times; but, it might not be your best choice to seek your church and pastor’s help.
As many of you know, I’ve battled depression this past year; and while grief and depression are different, there’s many similarities. As I’ve adjusted to life with depression, there’s a number of things that I’ve learned and this is one of them: Most churches and pastors (and religious friends) aren’t equipped to recognize and address the depressed. We should not expect them to be equipped. But we do. They haven’t been trained to understand the psychosomatic nature of depression; nor have they a background in tasks of mourning or grief work models; the different types of grief and how each one should be approached.
And it’s okay to recognize the limitations in our religious community.
Today’s church speaks the language of affirmation, the language of light (cataphatic theology as opposed apophatic theology) to such a degree that doubt and darkness can sometimes be viewed as sin.
Depression, for some religious communities, is sometimes seen as a curse of God.
And grief is something that God might not feel, so neither should we (at least for an extended period of time).
And while some churches can be understanding of grief, and the doubt and depression that comes with it, few are prepared to understand how said grief, doubt and depression affects you.
We can become more course, more rigid and more … unacceptable. And, honestly, it’s possible that we do indeed become unacceptable for many churches, as our darkness and our doubt takes us out of the comfort realm for many within the church.
Indeed, many pastors recognize the limits of their training and can recommend professionals to help with your grief, etc., but some don’t recognize their limits. They can provide first or second level assessment (i.e., “you need some professional guidance”), but the deeper levels of assessment and counsel should be left to those grief specialists.
Unless your church or pastor has a professional background in understanding depression and/or grief, I think we do both our pastors, our religious friends and ourselves a great service by seeing someone who is professionally trained.
The following post was originally a guest post on Michelle Van Loon’s blog, “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.”
The author of the post, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the following message to me via facebook:
Last June we accepted a foster placement of twin girls who were four months old. We’ve been foster parents for almost 7 years, but nothing prepared us for the sudden death of one of the twins, Ellie, at almost seven months. She went to bed a happy and healthy baby and when I reached into her crib in the morning I pulled out a corpse instead.
I am traumatized. I am an emergency nurse and not unfamiliar with death. I did CPR on Ellie out of reflex but with the full knowledge that she was gone and I couldn’t fix it. I can still taste the breath that I pushed out of her lungs. I’m never going to be the same…and I know it.
I am also a Christian. I think. In fact my husband is a church leader, making me the wife of a spiritual leader.
She then gave me the link to her post at “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.” I asked if I could also post it on my blog and she gave me permission. This post is immensely challenging, and will beg you to vicariously see the grief of a bereaved mother. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that will help you understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It’s written from the perspective of Holy Saturday … where doubt and silence are the only forms of faith.
Please stop attempting to spiritualize the death of my child. Assigning some thoughtless Christian platitude only serves to deepen my anger and further question my beliefs. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” would be far better than these actual attempts at comfort that I’ve received:
1. “God has a plan.”
Really? You serve a God with a plan that involves killing babies? Or at least standing by and allowing the baby to die when you believe that he could have intervened? Because the baby killers I’ve seen get life in prison. And even the convicts know which guy to attack.
2. “Some good will come of this. You’ll see.”
You think that at some point I’m going to see some direct blessing in my life or someone else’s that will make me think, “Aha! Here’s the good that came from my child’s death! I am now so glad that she died so that this could happen!” No! An Almighty God could surely think of some other really creative way to bring about good. Or else I don’t want that “blessing.” I will always wonder why it had to be this way, no matter what good things may come later in my life.
3. “Just think of the ministry you can have someday to parents who have lost children.”
No. At least not the ministry you’re thinking. That would require me to say that God is somehow in this for them and I happen to know that’s not helpful. Plus, I don’t want that ministry. I’ve spent twenty years of my life trying to serve God full time. I’ve put every major decision of my life through “God’s will” as a filter, including setting aside life dreams for myself. All of the big things I’ve tried to do for him have been heartbreak for me. I think I’m done with ministry at this point.
4. “God loves you.”
Imagine If I were married to someone who said, “I love you. I mean, you’re going to get hurt and I won’t stop it. In fact, I might even cause it. But I love you! It’s for your own good! It’s because of my great love for you.” You would encourage me to get to a women’s shelter immediately for my own safety. Where’s the safe place from this kind of “love?”
5. “God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
I’ve been dealing with a moderate amount of anxiety since my baby’s death. I’m not a very anxious person by nature, so I’ve sought some help dealing with the feelings of panic. I struggle with coming home after a night shift and wondering what I might find. I compulsively check on my children at night. Going to the doctor with another child of mine is a trip through some very dark places of fear. I’m constantly wondering which of my family members is next on God’s hit list. The advice that God’s love will fix those fears isn’t really resonating with me right now.
6. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Just depend on Him.”
The Christian grief counselor we saw put it this way: “God doesn’t give sorrow to people unless he knows they can handle it.” Really? Well, he was wrong. I can’t handle this. And if he doesn’t give me more than I can handle, why do I need to depend on him? The last time I was depending on him, my child died. So, yeah. That’s not likely to happen again soon.
7. “You’ll see her again someday.”
Is that day today? Then no, this isn’t helpful. It’s minimally hopeful if I can be sure that it’s true, but there’s no Scripture to really support this belief. There’s inference and tradition and conjecture, but there’s no chapter and verse that says, “Infants who die go to heaven.” Besides, If I live an average life expectancy, I will have to live at least another fifty years of missing her. ”Someday” could be a long, long time from now.
8. “Look at all of God’s blessings in this situation already! At least_______”
All of your “at leasts” aren’t blessings to me. Anything you say that starts with “at least” only minimizes my feelings.
9. “Just read [insert Bible verses here] and you’ll feel better.”
Passages that have been suggested to me include verses about God’s judgment, the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, a passage instructing me that my heart is deceitful and wicked, and other similarly “helpful” Scriptures. This advice also assumes that I know no Scripture to which I can turn. You know which verse has been ever on my mind ever since the day my child died? “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve been reading the Bible for almost thirty years. I know where to find verses. Not too many of them are helpful right now. Bludgeoning me with Romans 8:28 is especially painful.
10. ”Just trust God. He is in control.”
I was trusting God at the time my baby died. She still died. If God is in control, that assumes that he killed my baby. My sweet, smiling, dimpled baby. If he didn’t kill her, he stood by while she died and didn’t stop it. Still guilty. I’d much rather believe that fate or chance had a hand in her death. I’m a lot more likely to have a continued relationship with someone who didn’t cause my baby’s death, either directly or indirectly.<
11. “This happened for God’s glory. Maybe someone might even get saved!”
This has been said to me with much excitement and expectation. You mean to tell me that God couldn’t have orchestrated some other way to get glory or reveal himself to someone? Or that some person out there is going to say, “Oh! God allowed ‘T’s’ baby to die. I should start a relationship with him and trust him with MY life!” Doubt it. And even if that actually did happen, should I then feel that this was all worth it?
12. “This world is not our home. She’s in a better place now.”
Yeah? Well, I live here right now, so it’s my home. If you actually believe this, why haven’t you committed suicide yet? As for me, I’d finally be in a better place if I died, too? And no, I’m not at all suicidal. I’m just saying that no matter where she is, I’m in a really painful place right now.
13. “Just imagine what tragedy or heartbreak God saw in your baby’s future that he decided to save her from.”By killing her? I’m sure there was another possible work-around or two. For that matter, this has been a devastating tragedy and heartbreak for me. Why didn’t I die as an infant so I wouldn’t have to go through this now?
14. “God will carry you through.”
If this is the kind of thing God is going to carry me through, I’d like him to please put me down.
15. ”Be thankful for what you have.”
The assumption here is that I wasn’t thankful before (I was), that I’m not thankful now (I am), and further minimizes the loss I feel. How do you suggest that I answer even the simplest question of how many children I have? I’m thankful for what I have AND for what I no longer have. It’s impossible to answer this question correctly now. Similar, but even more guilt-producing is “You have your husband and children to think about now.” Thank you for the suggestion that my grief and pain are invalid by comparison and should be left unmanaged for the good of my family. See? There. I was thankful.
16. “Things will get better.”
When? How do you know? Because for me, bad things just keep happening. It can get worse and I can name at least fifty ways it could get worse right now. So don’t say that things will get better. It could go either way.
17. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something.”Well, maybe he could have just texted me the instructions instead. Seriously. All I’m learning is that God can do whatever he wants and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A similar platitude, “Maybe God is trying to draw you closer to himself”, is equally insulting. Can’t he see the future? Didn’t he know that using an infant’s death to deepen our relationship might backfire? Please don’t presume to know the mind of God or impart your opinion of it to me.
18. “She’s with the Lord now.”
She wasn’t before? How about the rest of my family? I’m not with the Lord? Well, I’m glad he’s with someone, I guess.
19. “I know how you feel. I felt exactly that way when my grandparent/great Aunt Lucy/Fluffy died or when my child was sick, but then got better. But I just prayed and kept my eyes on God and he got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
You have no idea how I feel. I wouldn’t wish how I feel on anyone. And what will he get me through TO? Can you guarantee that whatever is on the other side of this trench in life is something less painful? Because whatever it is, it will be a life missing my child and all the things that loss means.
20. “I was so devastated when your child died that I couldn’t go to work that week/I’m still struggling a month later.”
Both of these are actual things said to me by people who had seen my baby fewer than six times in her whole life. Other ways people who barely knew her have tried to be a part of the drama and somehow connect themselves to this tragedy include Facebook statuses or tweets with her name as a hash tag, prayer requests without my permission or in inappropriate places, and most difficult: “How are you doing? Because I’m so sad that ____.” There was an expectation that I should comfort THEM. Exhausting.
21. “You should_____.”
Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to exercise more, eat better, read that great book about God, go to a grief support group, focus on God, get involved more at church, get alone with God, go away for a weekend without my kids, take sleeping pills, talk about it more, or think about it less. I can’t afford to take any more time off work. I can’t concentrate enough to do much of anything right now, honestly. And a bigger list of things I “should” be doing right now is simply not helpful.
22. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.”
No. I’m here. Alone. It’s not possible for you to be here for me or I’d gladly give it to you. I’m glad you want to help, and I don’t doubt your sincerity. But this comment is a substitute for any kind of real help. You’ve absolved yourself of actually helping me in any tangible or intangible way and placed the onus on me to come up with some idea of what I need. You know what I need? I need my child. Alive and giggling. I need the image of her lifeless in her crib out of my mind and the taste of her dead skin out of my mouth. I need her siblings to grow up with her. I need for my husband to have never experienced this depth of pain. If you can’t give me any of these things, you’re kind of on your own with suggestions for helping me. Maybe send a sympathy card. It will make you feel better.
23. “Well, I’ll pray for you.”
Aside from the doubt that exists over whether you’ll actually do it or not, how is this helpful? Who knows better than God what I need and why hasn’t he already given it to me? Your asking for it will make it magically appear? The worst part about this statement is that it usually comes at the end of your listening to me or grieving with me. As in, “You’re done now. I’ll pray for you, okay? You’re making me uncomfortable with your intense sadness and hard questions.”
I know that I haven’t left you anything to say. Maybe that’s the point. I also know that, if you’re a typical Christian, you’re defensive and even deeply wounded by what I’ve said here. You’re thinking, “But remember, here’s what God is REALLY like and here’s where you’re wrong. Here’s where you need to adjust your theology and get your heart right with God.”
Whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable this makes you feel, no matter what you believe or even what I believe, these things you’ve said are not helpful to me. In fact, many of them are so hurtful that I’ve been awake more than one night trying to work through them.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to accept my child’s death with a little more grace. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick with, “This sucks,” or a simple, “I’m sorry.” You know what’s even better? The sound you make when you stay quiet.
The funeral industry as we know it now in America allows for some of the greatest examples of both human graces and disgraces. The disgraces are all too publicized, and rightfully so. Most of us may remember the 334 bodies found in the back yard of the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia. Instead of fixing their retort, the crematory simply placed the bodies in the back yard to decompose and in place of the actual cremated remains, they gave the families boxes filled with wood chips, cement powder and wood ashes.
Many of us have seen the Nightline reports where funeral directors were caught bypassing laws on a regular basis, trying to scam money off of the elderly and acting more like greedy salesmen than compassionate professionals. Unfortunately, there are many funeral directors who are all too willing to use disadvantaged people to their own advantage. It’s ugly. It’s exploitation at its most base level. Yet, it happens. The unfortunate result of mixing grief clouded minds and greed poisoned hearts.
But, there are those of us who work hard, with undying honesty and integrity, sweating yellow tinged stains on our white collars. We withstand the sweat rolling down our backs into our cracks on the hot summer days as we stand in the caustic sun at the graveside. My great grandfather used to mow the funeral home yard in his shirt and tie. We’re probably still the only practitioners who ask for winter suits … they only make the medium grade suits today because white collar workers just aren’t out in the cold. Our backs are one of the main occupational hazards in this industry. And we get dirty too … crimson red on a bright white cotton shirt. Our collars may be white but our hearts are bleeding blue.
There are those funeral directors who see their profession as a calling; who find a sacredness to their calling, as though there was something spiritual about their work. As though they are more so ministers than death merchants. They are understanding, compassionate, hard-working, service oriented people who are more concerned about the richness of life in death then the wealth of their bank accounts. There are those who give their services for free to the less fortunate and downtrodden. Those of us who push families to buy caskets under their financial means instead of over. There are those of us who go above and beyond our contract expectations; who spend that extra five hours making the car accident victim viewable so that the family can see him one more time. There are those of us who offer more than just pre-need and at-need services … those of us who are there for the family months after the fact. There are those of us who understand that our integrity and honest direction can make Death a lot less hard for a whole lot of people.
The ancient and famed Egyptian embalmers understood that to be good death practitioners you also had to have religious and moral over and under tones in your life. And although we don’t divine like Egyptians, there are those of us who view this profession first as a practice of spirituality and secondly as a business; and, who do both with a strong work ethic. That’s the mold that I’m trying to fit into. A blue, white and clerical collar.
(Some days I play the role of advice mallard. So, hang with me as I dish.)
I want to give you permission to pursue your doubts about your faith.
In some faith communities and religious families, the doubters are ostracized. Doubting isn’t just seen as questioning; it’s viewed as something that’s underpinned by rebellion, by sin. The prevailing idea is that, “You’re doubting the faith, so you can leave the faith; and by leaving the faith, you are leaving our family.”
To stave off being ostracized by family and friends, many doubters keep their questions about God to themselves. And, to a degree, it’s okay, except when that doubt is part of your grief.
Doubt and grief are directly correlated. Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
Goodness is sucked away in grief; and many of us base our faith off the presumed goodness of God. When that goodness is sucked into the darkness of grief, the foundation of God’s goodness begins to shake; our faith trembles and sometimes it shatters.
The dilemma that results is this: we need our family and friends during grief … to share our grief with, to remember and to receive acceptance; yet, we’re afraid we will be ostracized by our family and friends if we express our doubt. Do we: 1. Pursue our grief induced doubts at the expense of our community and at the expense of experiencing the grief within the community; or, 2. Do we pursue our community at the expense of our personal faith searching?
We do both. You need both. You need to accept your doubts and find acceptance in community. And it might be nearly impossibility.
If you are experiencing doubt in a faith community during your grief, tell someone you trust something like this:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me right now. I know your faith is strong and I respect you for your faith, but my faith has taken a hit since ____’s death. Instead of forcing my faith, I’m processing my doubt. _____’s death is changing me.”
If they can listen, you need to talk it through with them. It’s healthy to express your grief within the community of grievers; and if your grief includes doubt, sharing will only help diminish your pain and clarify your outlook.
On the other hand, I want to give you permission to pursue the faith you’ve never had.
Grief can also enliven a newfound belief in God. All of a sudden your darkness sees a light and now – in your community of “unbelievers” – you’re the religious nut.
And you need to say the same thing to your community:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me. I know we aren’t very religious and I respect you and how you live life. But, I’m pursing faith since _____‘s death. I don’t want to convert you, but I want you to know I’m changing.”
The grief that can produce doubt can also enliven faith. And both are okay. And both need to be done in our communities.
Accept your grief. Accept your enlivened faith. And, to the best you can, do so in your community.