Christian megachurch pastor Joel Osteen recently released an update to his book, Your Best Life Now, in which he tells the story of bereaved parents, Phil and Judy, who mourned the death of their only son. Like any parents who endure this unimaginable pain and grief, the couple was inconsolable and mourned their son throughout the following years.
According to Osteen: "Consequently, fifteen years after the fact, Phil and Judy continued to languish in self-pity and self-induced isolation. Why? Because they don't want to get well... They like the attention too much." He goes on to tell readers, "You must get beyond it. Unless you let go of the old, God will not bring the new. It is natural to feel sorrow and to grieve, but you shouldn't still be grieving five or ten years later."
Osteen's judgment of grieving persons, particularly parents, has blown up across the Internet, and rightfully so. Instead of castigating those like Judy and Phil who grief because when others "tried to lift their spirits," they were not as responsive as he or others believed they should have been, it would have been a far more Christian and human thing to do to join them in that deep, dark hole of grief without judgment.
Allowing mourners to be in their pain, without trying to make them change how they feel (often to make yourself and said others feel better), would actually be a more compassionate and more Christlike response. Why? Because trying to force a grieving person to feel better is like telling a double amputee to get up and run before she is ready: it's insensitive, lacks circumspection, and certainly doesn't even remotely resemble compassion. And Jesus seemed intent on compassion for the weakest amongst... didn't he? Are we talking about the same guy?
I suspect the psychological responses of the couple to whom you make reference in your book were exacerbated by judging others who, like you, are likely terrified to imagine what it would be like to see your own child's dead, cold body laying in a casket. I do understand. That is not an image you want in your mind is it, sir.
So, instead of joining them in imagining that horror, one you really can never fathom until it is happening and, even then, the brain does all it can to protect itself from the utter atrocity of the experience, you -- and others - -use spiritual bypass to "lift up" -- only for many, these pushes toward premature healing don't lift up grieving parents -- they tear down and alienate and ostracize those who most need comfort and solidarity.
By joining them in the abyss, rather than "lifting them (forcibly) up," they see that others have stood by them, borne witness to their suffering, not averted their gaze, have offered their nonjudgmental heart and compassion, slowly, ever so slowly, integration comes.
No, they do not "like the attention." No, they are not slathering in what you call "self-pity." Their child is dead.
I wear three hats in this discussion about the controversy Pastor Osteen began, which is why I feel a need to respond.
I am a board-certified chaplain and have expertise in grief and bereavement. In those roles, I have been with thousands of persons throughout my career who are struggling with grief following the death of a loved one. I have seen many, many responses to grief and bereavement not only immediately after the death, but also in the years afterward. The first thing I -- or any professional chaplain or grief expert -- would say is that not everyone grieves the same way. The second is that grief never, ever goes away. It may soften, but there will always be an empty place in one's home and heart and that will bring times of "grief bursts" and sadness. The third thing is that those who are grieving are not, I repeat, NOT, wallowing in self-pity. They are trying to find their way in a world that has been turned upside down and will never be the same again. For bereaved parents, this is even more so; there is no worse pain that the death of one's child.
I am an ordained Christian minister, and here I take offense at Pastor Osteen's assumption that he knows how God acts: "Unless you let go of the old, God will not bring the new." While there are many understandings of the Holy and how the Divine works in people's lives -- Christians and those of other faiths or no faith alike -- I am certain that the One who walks beside those in grief, no matter what name that One goes by, does not punish those who are grieving or withhold moments of hope and joy that will softly come again.
Finally, I am a bereaved parent. While all my "hats" are deeply offended by the remarks made by Pastor Osteen, this is the one that has caused me much pain, as it has to the thousands of other bereaved parents and persons who have reacted to his comments. Our 17-year-old daughter died in 2003. I mourn her deeply every day and will for the rest of my life. I do not wallow in self-pity, nor do I want to let go "of the old" that God gave to us as a precious gift on the day of her birth. I will not "get beyond it," as her death is a fact in our family's story. I do live my "new normal" life now with joy and meaning and purpose, yet it will always be touched by the sadness and grief of all I have and will continue to miss with our daughter.
If not all this was enough, what has angered bereaved persons the most is Pastor Osteen's refusal to dialogue about his statement when called into question. Those of us who have tweeted our dislike of his comments and asked him to both apologize and talk about this issue have immediately been blocked by his Twitter account. He refuses to respond to the requests of professionals and bereaved persons alike to enter into a dialogue. Comments left on his Facebookpage are removed. This has done nothing but escalate the conflict and caused yet more pain to those within the grief community.
Those who are grieving or bereaved do not wallow in self-pity. I wonder if the same can be said for Pastor Osteen as he sits in silence, refusing to respond to those who are speaking deeply and courageously from their hearts and souls.