In my early years of parenting, I met a man who told his terrible story of grief to every single person he met in however casual a circumstance as a kind of confessional. This is a man who had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving a cross country trip at night with his children in the car. Just before he fell asleep, he had leaned over and unbuckled his young son so that he could sleep more easily. And then he rolled the car and this precious child was thrown out the window and killed on landing.
This man had been offered forgiveness, love and understanding by his wife, by his community, and by his other children. I think he knew that God forgave him, as well, and he'd had an experience in a Mormon temple in which his son told his father that he loved him and was waiting for him in heaven. But this man could not forgive himself. Ever. He carried this burden with him and he would not set it down.
I thought he was crazy, and not just in a casual sense. I thought this man needed medication and a lot of therapy. I thought there was definitely something wrong with someone who could not stop talking about a tragedy years after it had happened, when there was nothing left to do about it, when he had been given spiritual witness of forgiveness. Why hadn't he healed? Why hadn't he moved on? Why was he still talking about it when it forced me to deal with the images of a child dying in a horrific way?
Just four years after I moved away from the neighborhood where this man lived, I lost my own child. And in the early weeks and months of it, I was determined to "heal" and to "get over it." I remember my midwife sitting me down and telling me a story of a ninety year-old woman who when she died said that her only peace in dying was in the thought that she would be able to see the daughter she had lost sixty years before.
I remember a dear friend of mine telling me about a woman she had known who had died a painful death of cancer whose daughter said that her only peace was in knowing that her mother would no longer suffer every minute of every day the guilt of knowing she had accidentally run over her infant child in the driveway years before. Another friend told me of the loss of her best friend to a serial killer and how guilty she felt that their last words were acrimonious ones. She asked me how long it had been for me, and I counted it still in months and she shook her head, and said, "That is a very bad time, a very hot time for grief."
These people were trying to warn me that grief does not run an easy course from beginning to end. They were showing me the way ahead, that I would be grieving the rest of my life for the loss of my daughter. And I emphatically did not want to listen to them. I wasn't going to be like them. I was going to "recover." My life was going to be as it had been before, as it should have been before this happened. Through the sheer force of my enormous will, I was going to force myself out of grief and into a normal world.
Eleven years later, I am still talking to everyone I meet about the daughter I lost before I ever knew her, before I ever saw her face, two weeks after she was due to be born into the world, and at night while I slept the peace of the innocent--the last good sleep I may ever have in my life.
The reason I talk about my daughter's death is not only because I am still grieving and will always still grieve for her. It is also because as a Christian, I feel strongly that we do not do a sufficient job at mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, as Christ commands us to do in the Sermon on the Mount.
First of all, we need to stop being impatient that others finish their grieving process. Grieving doesn't end. And it doesn't adhere to a timetable. There isn't a cure to grief. You don't fix other people's grief. It is disrespectful even to imagine such a thing, and to many people who grieve, the idea that they put it aside is akin to asking them to forget about the lost loved one (or lost dream or hope).
Second, acknowledge the pain. I was amazed at how much I felt when people around me simply said they were sorry rather than turning away from me because my grief was too painful for them to look at. I'm sorry seems so simple, but it means that you are there, with me in my grief, waiting for me, feeling my pain.
Third, listen rather than give advice. This includes not offering platitudes about where the loved one currently is, that it is a "better place" or that "this was part of the plan." This is dismissive of the pain that those grieving feel. No matter what your own belief in where the dead go, don't insist on it. Even if the one grieving shares your beliefs, they may be struggling with those beliefs at the moment. And even if they do believe in a better world, that does not take away their pain.
Fourth, don't talk about learning lessons. I can't tell you how many people insisted to me that my daughter died because my family needed to learn some lesson, and that she had sacrificed herself for us. This was incredibly painful to me as a mother who is supposed to always put herself between her child and any danger. I would a hundred times rather have died myself than had my daughter die, and there was no conceivable lesson that could make me change my mind.
Fifth, do not put all the burden on the grievers to do the work of excusing mistakes that others make. I felt this all the time. When I complained that people had said hurtful things, everyone around me would say, "Well, they were just trying to help." Yes, they were. And they were doing a bad job of it. Part of giving someone space to grieve is to allow them to be angry, to feel what they are feeling. A grieving person is the last person who should be forced to excuse other people's bad behavior. Yet we seem to expect them to be doing all of the work of keeping up relationships. This is unfair and unreasonable and on a basic level, unchristian.
I would say in general that we need to spend more time listening, less time sermonizing. Instead of avoiding people who are feeling discomfort because we don't know what to say to them, we can simply say "I'm sorry," and then listen. We can share our stories of our own grief with each other instead of trying to pretend that we are all whole and healed and have moved on. We can ask over and over again how others are doing, instead of demanding that they "move on" on a time table that makes us comfortable.
One of the most important gifts that was given to me by friends around me was the willingness simply to come and sit with me in my pain. Sometimes I couldn't talk. Sometimes I didn't want to listen, either. I just needed someone else to grieve with me, as if there was a kind of miracle in someone else holding the pain for a little and promising not to let go of it, so that I had a moment of respite from holding it myself.