When bad things happen in the world, terrible things like the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, people tend to say that the world is broken or that we as humans are broken. I think they’re trying to put their finger on the fact that it feels so wrong. We feel pain, and the pain is alien — something that doesn’t belong. The idea goes that if grief was the way that things are supposed to be, it wouldn’t feel so terrible and bother us so much. It’s like when Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street is happy when it rains, loves the stink of his garbage can, and enjoys trash that’s rotten or worn out. All of these things repulse us. If grief and loss and pain were the way things were designed to be, then wouldn’t we reasonably revel in those things?
But we don’t revel in those things, do we? Not most of us. We push back and resist, we call these things tragedies. We organize calls to action and we bring meals and we hold one another and we try to remember that this is not the norm.
We rebuild, we sign petitions, we rally for change. Then we slowly let down our guard and think the worst has past.
Then something else happens and we are forced to do it all over again.
The thing is, there comes a time when we will all be faced with tragedy. If you haven’t faced it yet, you won’t get to avoid it forever. As much as I’d like to deny it, pain and loss are a part of the way things are. Distract yourself, numb yourself, busy yourself as much as you want in an attempt to pretend it isn’t true, but at some point the truth of pain will descend upon you.
In that time, it’s hard to know how to handle it, what to say or do, especially if the loss is close to you. It can be big or small, but if it feels big, then it is big. Brene Brown has something to say about that.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over a empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer. You’re feeling shame for forgetting your son school play? Please — that’s a first world problem; there are people dying of starvation every minute. The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough…When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world…Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.
– Brene Brown, Rising Strong
A time of grief is not a time to offer clichés, it’s not a time to try and find reasons why it’s going to turn out ok, it’s not a time to throw around Bible verses willy nilly. It’s a time to sit with your friend in the dust with ashes on your head, and weep alongside him/her. Lament is something we’ve nearly forgotten about in the American church, and in so doing, we’ve lost a way of accessing deep truths and emotions, which is one reason we have grown wary of them in our services or our decision-making. We don’t trust our emotions, in part because we’re unfamiliar with more of them than “happy” or “sad”. Lament allows us to acknowledge the burning injustices of the world, the seeming inactivity of God, and the pain that comes with grief.
This is what we can do with our friends (even if we don’t know them) who have experienced such loss last week in Orlando. We can do this when our friend’s mother discovers cancer in her lung. We can do it on the anniversary of someone’s death. We can do it upon the announcement of someone’s divorce. We can put our arms around them, be quiet until they’re ready to speak, lament with them, and offer love.
The surprising thing is that one day in the future (there’s no saying how far into the future; grief is a unpredictable and untamable, insisting on it’s own time table that circles back and forth with little warning), there will come a time when the beauty of the world catches your friend guard. The mist will roll in across the field, the moon will rise, and the fireflies will blink in random patterns just frequently enough to know they’re real. In that moment, something will shift inside and a changed version of an old feeling will return, something like wonder and blessing combined with a familiar lacing of sadness around the edges. And it will be just enough to know there is something else to be felt, that you’re still capable of something besides pain and numbness. It will be enough.