Sunday, March 28, 2010

Grief 101

In Oswald Chambers' book, Christian Disciplines, he says the person who hands you a definition of suffering proves they've never experienced it. And he describes those who try to provide comfort to the sufferer thus: the amateur sufferer's words of comfort are a clamor, and the veteran sufferer's words of comfort are an oppressive weight.

He tells a story about a missionary to China whose husband and daughter were beheaded. She returned to Britain with her remaining children, and she was immediately forced to endure the endless stream of comments by well-wishers who minimized her loss by lavishing her with spiritual platitudes.

But one day, an elderly minister came. He walked over to her, gently placed a kiss on her forehead, and left. He never said a word. From that moment, she said, she began to heal.

Grief is not linear. C. S. Lewis rightly describes it as a spiral. I find myself in any one of the stages at any given time, and I wonder, along with Lewis, whether or not I am presently spiraling upward or downward.

It's easy to become impatient with the spiral, especially if you're observing it casually, rather than riding it yourself. It's also easy to be surprised by the spiral, especially if you typically view grief as being linear. I find that people have a tendency to think I should be at a different spot on the spiral. I also get the sense that people think I feel lost or confused, or I don't know what's going on, or I'm unfamiliar with the grief process (and they are experts), or I need instructions.

But the truth is that I'm perfectly content with my current status, whatever it happens to be at any moment. When I talk about how I'm feeling, it's not because I'm looking for solutions or explanations. I'm just processing.

One of the things I've observed over the past three months is that an experienced sufferer does not necessarily become an effective comforter. Suffering doesn't automatically equip you to be a help to others who are suffering. It could, and quite possibly it should, but it doesn't.

To truly help those who are hurting, you must add compassion and patience to your experiences with suffering. Otherwise, you sound like the clamorous amateur or the oppressive veteran. Before you use actual words in response to the hurts of others, check your heart. See if a kiss on the forehead might bring greater comfort. Or those little heart emoticons. I like those.