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Four Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Who’s Grieving

Pain 004

Sophia Louise

Brian Brown - published on 05/15/14

Your instincts are probably wrong.

If you’re like most Americans, you have a difficult time knowing what to do when a friend is in pain. And your friend probably has a difficult time knowing what to do with the pain. The pain could be the death of a parent or friend, or the pain that follows the loss of a job or boyfriend, or just feeling like the universe has had its heel in your face for a really long time.

Too often, you cope by using a lot of the same get-out-of-jail-free clichés. You tell them to yourself, to get yourself to buck up or to try to jinx the universe into leaving you alone. You tell them to your friends, to do the same for them. Sometimes these clichés have truth to them and are things to think about, but too often they’re just a device for avoiding what’s really going on (more on that in a minute!).

I just finished reading a new book,Invitation to Tears, by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills. Jonalyn and Aubrie take a refreshingly different look at the pain. They suggest that learning how to experience it is actually a valuable thing, a thing our culture has neglected to teach us. Dealing with pain, or helping a friend do it, according to the authors, involves avoiding things like these:

1) Lame platitudes.

“At least she isn’t suffering any more.” “He’s with Jesus.” “This all happens for a reason.”

“That’s NOT why I’m crying!” exclaimed a frustrated Jonalyn after the death of her mother-in-law. The platitudes can be particularly bad within the Church—the place where people are supposed to be able to bring their deepest pain.

Within the comforting walls of the Church, we’ve stripped ourselves of a language for loss. What David and the psalmists spoke fluently, we have unlearned. We do not know how to sit with someone in his or her suffering without trying to fix it.

The authors suggest we need a language for grief—and in an awesome move, include entire lists of poems, books, and movies that center around grief; things that can help us provide that language.

2) Consider it all joy.

Christians hear this one a lot. Because, obviously, someone in deep pain wants Scripture quoted at them as a guilt trip. Certainly, some people just need to stop griping and remember that (as my priest put it last week) we’re in God’s story, not the other way around. But in the face of real pain, this can become a real mechanism for avoiding the guilt—especially if you’re telling it to yourself.

Life is hard, and facing that is part of facing grief. The authors suggest that giving in to the grief is, in a certain way, healthy and important.

Grief means outwardly doing less in order to save the resources to vent, to journal, to take long walks, to cry, to stare off into space and think. To take up the utterly un-Western practice of doing less to learn more. It’s no wonder Americans don’t have time for it. Grief is neither dependable nor efficient, but it will make us more human.

3) Isn’t it about time you moved on?

Again, once in a while somebody does need to hear this. But against that rare situation, the authors contrast the Jewish tradition of shivah, in which the entire community unites around the person in pain to guide him through his grief. “The community acts like captains, charting the course so the grieving can hold onto the side of the ship. As they grip the rails, they know no matter how they feel, someone else is steering them through the waves.” The authors suggest that for people seeking to comfort someone in pain, “Honor pain with your own steps into the pain.”

They also note, with echoes of T.S. Eliot, that memory is a part of pain—but it is also a part of eventually moving beyond it. When your friends surround you in your pain, you see your closest friends proving themselves, and build memories (or even physical reminders like cards) that can help you in the future.

4) God is schooling you.

Of course God can be teaching you something through pain—trying to get your attention. But as Anne Snyder observed last week, it’s often a great deal more complicated than that. The authors agree:

In the Scripture, we see how suffering doesn’t simply land on the guilty, pain also falls on the innocent. The sacrificial lamb each year proves that the innocent suffer, again and again, for the sins of the guilty. As Adam and Eve’s offspring pain follows each of us. Pain is not consistently a result of God’s displeasure.

Instead, Jonalyn and Aubrie offer an approach that is more Eliot-ish—it involves, in a way, incorporating the grief into who you are. In the real world, a fallen world, life is sometimes awful—and there is no clear reason for it. It’s very American to try to ignore it, to try to put it in an easy box, to try to push past it, or to try to explain it. But against all this, the authors suggest that experiencing grief, if we as communities take the trouble to re-learn how to do it, is not only bearable—it is a crucial and, in a way, beautiful part of what makes us human.

Brian Brown is a social fundraising consultant and cultural critic based in Colorado. He is the senior editor of Humane Pursuits. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianBrownSF.

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