very griever faces three key needs. The first need is to define the nature of the loss. This is true regardless of the nature of the loss. People have told me, “I shouldn’t really be grieving for this. It’s not like somebody’s died.”
But maybe your dream has died, or some assumptions that you cling to have died. The danger is when someone tries to put words in your mouth: “Oh, I know what you’re going through. . . . ” Actually, unless I’ve told you what I’m going through, you do not know what I’m going through.
The second need is to say the words aloud. I have thought a lot lately about those testimony meetings in that little Nazarene church in Kentucky where I grew up. I remember that every Wednesday night if Brother Reeves was there, he would often talk about living through the Great Depression when he lived outside Chicago. He would describe walking along the railroad tracks, trying to find little pieces of coal to keep his family warm.
It was an interesting testimony, but I couldn’t apply it to my life. What I remember most, though, is Brother Reeves, with tears in his eyes, saying, “God has never deserted me. He has never left me alone. He’s been there. He has provided.”
I wish I had Brother Reeves on tape, because there are times when I would love to take a time out and just listen to it. There’s something powerful that happens when we say the words aloud.
The third need is to know that our words have been heard. One man I met in Albuquerque argues that we are on earth really for one reason: to go around listening to people. Jesus did that often, whether with the demoniac or the woman at the well. Something happens when we listen. Even if we cannot solve the problem directly, listening can promote healing. I am comforted when you have listened to me.
In hospital groups that I lead, the only thing I offer the people who attend them is a safe place of comfort. They can come to the hospital and tell us anything they want to tell us, and we will listen to them.
Author and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green says the most useful question in moments of loss is not “Why?” but rather, “What’s next?” How can I bring good out of my life?
I’m reading the new book by Walter Wangerin, Jr., the great Christian author, called Letters from the Land of Cancer. These are letters he sent to people during various parts of his illness. Listen to the depth of these letters: “What is this cancer about? What might it yet teach me?”
And I think from an Easter point of view, we can expand this and ask, “How might God bring resurrection out of the experience that I am in?” Whatever this loss is, I often hear people who are able to “own” their grief, verbalize it, and work through it, be able to find comfort and at times, even some good.
Harold Ivan Smith is a wordsmith, storyteller, and grief educator at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and for the American Academy of Bereavement. Go here to listen to a webinar on grief he recently led for discipleshipplace.org