Many years ago, as a college dean, I sought to comfort an older student who had witnessed the accidental death of her 7 year-old son. As I stood in line at the funeral home, I wondered what could I possibly say to this grieving mother? In front of me was the Campus Pastor who did and said all the right things. The hug, the quite murmurs of sympathy, and then, to my surprise, he began to speak of the young boy and what a blessing he had been in her life. He didn’t avoid the subject. The elephant was in the room but it didn’t matter! Her son was honored by the remembering conversation. The brief conversation did not ally her grief, but it mattered to her.
I have relived that lesson many times over. I have thought about her grief and, in fact, tried to imagine how that would feel. I know enough about human nature to know that I was feeling sympathy, but not empathy. One cannot slip into another’s loss and feel their pain, that sense of bewildering that seems to have filled the spot once held by the loved one. Old habits remain. The house now empty. The chair not filled. The conversation stilled. The toys idle. The special touches, missed. No, it is not possible to feel, or even to fully understand that kind of pain.
Grief. It’s just a word. Just a simple five-letter word that does not mean anything, not really, until it is not just a word, when it moves from being a noun to being a verb. Until it is a huge something that fills your life, that sits squarely on your chest like an invisible weight.
But now I know. At first, I could only imagine, then, there it was, the loss of my loved one. There before me, my own reason to experience grief. To feel it settle around me, a deep profound sense of emptiness, a loss, as if a large part of me that had always been there, was now gone.
Grief comes in waves. Often unexpectedly on the notes and words of particular songs, overheard conversations, even in books read and sermons heard. It crowds my memories when I see pictures taken of our travels together, or frequent family gatherings, or, most recently, her pendant now being worn by our beloved granddaughter.
So, for me grief is not just a word. It is neither noun nor verb in the real sense. It is a huge something that fills my life that other people cannot feel, until it is in your life. If it is just a noun to you, then don’t tip-toe around, when reaching out to the grieved one. Call it what it is, a loved one, a real person that left his or her mark.
Grief. It affects people differently. I became possessive, even protective of her clothes, her jewelry, whatever she cherished. I acted for too long on an assumption that I was the only one who was profoundly grieving. I was blind to the depth of grief being experienced by family members all around me, and others that loved her as well. But now I know.
There is no antidote for grief, the passage of time helps. Time does not completely heal grief. It might lessen its intensity, existing in the back portion of the mind, but it will never really heal. For me it will emerge in some of the most unexpected times and places, especially at family gatherings, birthdays, and other milestones in our family.
At my wife’s memorial service, my daughter paraphrased a statement written in 1910 by Henry Scott Holland at the funeral of King Edward VII. It was if my love was speaking directly to me…saying “death is nothing…I have only slipped into the next room. What we had, we still have. Nothing has changed. I am waiting for you…just around the corner…(in the next room).” That was reassuring. We had, throughout our married life, a close relationship with God, one that reassured us that God was in charge, that He loved us, and that one day we would be together with Him (in the next room?).
Oh, yes, I know grief. I realize that I have been given a very special gift that has equipped me in ways that will become clearer as I continue. I think about that young mother and how I might now respond to her grief. Not with sympathy, but with empathy. With the understanding that comes with experience, hard experience, where grief is the byproduct.
I have things to do. A family to love and reach out to. Others that might cross my path that will receive the benefit of the gift that I now cherish. Grief experienced is a gift to hold dear.
May you enjoy all that life will bring each day, and the strength to understand that some of the gifts come with pain or loss. That is part of the gift. Use it wisely and with gratitude. God’s gifts always have meaning.
For What Its Worth.