My experience here is not to write too directly from personal experience because… well… it is theologically irrelevant. My life isn’t like your life isn’t like the life of the guy down the street, so specific examples don’t mean much.
I’ll make an exception.
Last night I found out from one of my old friends that one of our mutual friends had her life changed in a most unexpected way, as she had to announce to us the death of her young son, a freshly minted United States Marine, who was killed early in his first deployment. As news of death always does, it hit me like a punch to the belly, and my first reaction was to cry. What followed was a journey into what it means to be a missioner, what it means to have a faith system, and what it means to allow others (even the ones who are against us) to believe the way they do.
After the crying, I found myself mute, unable to express how I truly felt about what was going on. The more I thought about “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “my prayers are with you,” (and I won’t even go into “…a better place,”) the more angry I became. How can I say that to a mother who – within in previous 24 hours – had lost her son? My thoughts last night were: if we were speaking of my son, how hard would I slap somebody for saying to me they were sorry. How dare they think that praying for me was going to do anything at all? How shallow and thoughtless could they be?
Comedian Ron White says about blowhard rednecks, “If you ever have a thought, just let it go.” In that moment (that stretched on for a couple of hours,) I had to take his advice.
I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t express anything because it all seemed so useless. What I admitted to someone last night was that to say any of those lines… to my grieving ears they just sounded like a bunch of half-hearted preacher-speaking bs. That is the human part of us letting the anger out when we really just need to be angry. And it’s letting the sadness out, when we really need to sit in a chair and cry. It ain’t no big thing. But we (read that: I) make it a big thing, and so, we end up embarrassed and ashamed and do nothing, and think the people around us are idiots.
Before this happened, as providence would have it I was on the phone with my mother for our every-so-often catching up, and in typical multitasking mode, I was sorting through boxes in my office as we talked. I came across one my old standby books from my “religion stuff” shelf called 90% of Helping is just Showing Up. The author’s premise is that when we are called on to be helpful or sympathetic, most of us tend to start filling the space of uncomfortable silence when visiting our grieving friend with insignificant burbling about ourselves: we talk about times that we have been sick. We natter on about how we got over it when grandma died. We are so uncomfortable with the concept of silence and grieving that we will say anything right up to the recipe for the Secret Sauce, rather than sit in uncomfortable, necessary stillness.
I wasn’t remembering that last night because I was practicing it. My brain went right to a social paralysis that looks like this:
I know and understand my own faith and belief system very well, and I know – intellectually – the outcome of this situation. At the same time I wasn’t able to express that because I felt that the words we generally use are all shallow and meaningless. Think of Charlie Brown’s teacher and the noise she makes instead of talking. I was stuck.
I spend a lot of time last night getting through my initial grief that was twofold: both for my friend and her indescribable loss, and that of her young son.
And then I started reading the sentiments.
Social media can be like a great digital guest book when events happen in our lives like birthdays and new grandchildren. And even more when we have a great loss. Dozens of well-wishers who, just like me, didn’t know what to say or how to say it, and so that single great feeling of a shared loss within that group of people came out as the words I’d earlier hated: “sorry for your loss” … “words cannot express” … “in my prayers” ….
It was the ah-hah! moment. It was the teaching moment and the moment of growth.
When we say those words to our friends at the worst possible moment in their lives, of course they do not hear nor will they remember what we have said. That is not the point. Even as I was reading through the pages of these sad greetings, I knew that even an interested eye would soon start to skim because they all “said the same thing,” on paper. That is not the point.
The spark of love within us that creates us as spiritual beings is in our own moment of helplessness when we don’t know what to say and we don’t know what to do, and so our words as if by habit fall into that Hallmark Moment mode. Novelists of any skill refer to these as the invisible words. When writing fiction it is necessary to put in certain filler words (“he said,” “she remarked,” etc.) that of course the reader is not going to dwell on, but they are critical to the understanding of the paragraph being written.
These words of sympathy and condolence are not spoken for the words they say, but because they are the invisible words that are not heard and yet we need to speak them, to come closer to expressing our communion, even in grief. Even in anger.
All we ever have to do – and all that person ever wants us to do – is to show up. In that rushed, urgent moment, it doesn’t matter what we say but that we have said it. In that moment of crisis the words of I’m sorry are soundless, (or invisible if written,) but the “sound” of them being there remains. It is the consolation that we remember long after, looking back on that terrible time. This is what it means to us as caring, prayerful people to give comfort where these is no comfort to be had. We come together with our friend, we check our own fears and sadness at the door, and we become the companion that our friend needs and deserves: We. Show. Up.
And when the conversations drop and the room goes all quiet, we don’t try to fill the void with meaningless personal chit-chat as if it drives the bad away. It doesn’t. We. Show. Up. This isn’t our time of “healing” it is theirs, and our role is to be a catalyist to that healing, in whatever way we can. Make food. Drive people to the airport. Help somebody buy a dark suit when all they brought with them is jeans. Change bed sheets. Wash a thousand dishes. Make sure there is toilet paper on the roll. God is in each of these things because: We. Show. Up.
It isn’t necessary for us to “be strong” or “not show weak eyes” or “leave our tears at home” because if we are a grieving community, we must first be a community. And the most difficult part for us (because we are all just a bunch of “guys” like the Apostles in their days before enlightenment,) is the time when we have to sit in silence, hold onto a hand or hug a shoulder, and be with the grieving in silence. Let the silence be quiet. Let healing begin by giving it that space. Leave your horror stories at home for today is not your day to tell them.
It took me a few hours of meditation (and crying) to find my way around this minefield of discovering just how human I really was. As dumb as that sounds – being human – it’s what “guys” discover most every day. Each of those discoveries brings us closer to an understanding of God.
We are your friends and we are your family (or maybe the two get all mixed up together.) We have your backside in this battle and we will be doing the same at the end of this war.
When the words will not come, we are here.
When the words come out so loud that even the Thunder above cannot hide them, we are here.
And when at last the words come around and are with us again, all quiet, maybe even a smile: We Are Here. Just as we have always been.
Go forth in peace and pray for me, a sinner.
Keep the faith!
“Where have you laid him,” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they said.