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Nancy Guthrie had never given much thought to the subject of grief.
She and her husband David were excited about the arrival of their first child, a little girl named Hope, who came into the world in November 1998.
Then everything changed. As Nancy put it, “Grief barged through the doors of our lives.” Their daughter was only two days old when a geneticist told them that Hope had a rare disorder called Zellweger Syndrome – a cellular deficiency that would prevent her organs from thriving. Kids with Zellweger generally lived only half a year.
Nancy and David took their baby home to die. They packed as much love into her 199 days as they possibly could, then said goodbye.
Their sadness was compounded by the realization that since both of them were obviously carriers of the same recessive gene, there was a 25% chance that any future children would be stricken with the same life-limiting genetic disorder. Therefore they chose to take surgical steps to prevent additional pregnancies.
Except something went wrong. A year and a half later they discovered they were expecting. Their son Gabe, who was born in July 2001, also had Zellweger. He likewise slipped away after six months.
Thus, traumatically and unexpectedly, they were ushered into the company of those who have been crushed by loss. Along the way, their sorrows were occasionally multiplied by friends and acquaintances who quite honestly had no idea how to comfort them, and ended up making things worse. But they were also blessed by friends and acquaintances whose gracious words and selfless actions helped restore their souls.
As Nancy increasingly found herself spending time with others in the throes of grief, she decided to post an online survey. She fielded responses from around the country: What was especially helpful to you in the days and months following the devastating loss of someone you loved?
The result is her 2016 volume What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts).
The book is a collection of personal experiences and practical suggestions as to how we can come alongside others during some of the darkest days of their lives, and help pass along the love, grace, and hope that ultimately spring from God alone.
It’s worth checking out a few of Guthrie’s observations.
For instance, because it’s so hard to know what to do or say, many of us are tempted to keep our distance from those who grieve. We don’t want to be embarrassed by tears – either theirs or ours. Perhaps it’s better to stay away than to trigger an awkward situation.
But this is almost always a bad idea. Staying away doesn’t protect others from pain. What’s painful is not showing up. Even though this might be the last thing we want to convey, our absence might even imply, “Your loved one wasn’t really that important to me.”
It seems natural to ask a grieving person, “How are you?” But for some, that can feel like demanding a report card: So, do you think you might be flunking Grieving 101? It’s far more positive to ask, “What is your grief like these days?” Then simply listen.
Nancy points out that speaking a name means more than we can possibly know. Whenever someone says to David or to her, “We often think of Gabe and Hope,” it reaffirms the uniqueness of their existence – and reminds them that their children are living still.
Guthrie urges her readers to be even more specific. You might say, “I’ll always remember those jokes Brett would tell at team meetings,” or, “Helen’s decorations were so original.” Such recollections are deeply comforting: Other people still remember the actual person I love.
It’s so easy to say after a funeral, “Let me know if you need anything.” But hurting people will almost certainly not let us know what they need. They themselves may not have the faintest clue.
It’s our privilege to discern such needs – and then to respond quietly and unassumingly. Mow someone’s grass. Rake their leaves. Do their laundry or dry cleaning. Sit by the phone and answer incoming calls, taking notes to pass along later. Nancy reports the power of acknowledging “firsts” – reaching out to a grieving family on the first Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday, or anniversary after someone has passed away. She tells of a friend who every year sends pink cupcakes to the home of a young mother on the anniversary of her stillborn daughter – a way of acknowledging, “We will always walk with you.”
If you yourself have experienced deep grief, you may have heard someone say, “I know that one day soon you’ll feel like yourself again.” But the truth is that life cannot possibly be the same again – not after the suicide, the car accident, losing one’s life partner, or the death of a child.
There is no playbook for recovery from grief. If there was such a thing, it would be different for every person. Be patient with those who hurt. Stay nearby, no matter how long it takes. Keep in mind that many of us linger in our grief for the simple reason that we’re comforted by continually thinking about the one we have lost. One day, by God’s grace, our feelings will begin to change. In the meantime, we can build our lives around I Peter 5:7: “Cast your cares on him [God, that is], because he cares for you.”
Finally, there are the theological misfires we sometimes hear at funerals:
God must need your little angel in heaven more than you needed her here.
God must truly love you to put you through this much pain.
God must truly be testing you to put you through this much pain.
God must truly be disappointed about something to put you through this much pain.
May all of us be sufficiently wise to acknowledge that God alone knows what God is up to. It’s far better to make simple, redemptive comments like these:
I love you.
I’m so sorry.
I simply have no words.
I’m praying for you.
I’m so glad to be here with you.
Or just as powerfully, offer the gifts of your tears, your embrace, and your quiet presence.
One of those who responded to Nancy Guthrie’s survey recalls that she said to her pastor, “I’m not sure I can hold on to God through this.” That pastor responded, with great wisdom, “Don’t worry: God will hold on to you.”
To which we can only say, “Amen.”
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