I have been very fortunate so far in my life to experience a relatively small amount of loss. There have been funerals. There have been dark days. There have been struggles not directly related to death. But for the most part, I have not had my world shaken by the loss of a direct loved one. I have not lost a parent. Or a spouse. Or a sibling. Or a best friend. The fact that these events are inevitably part of my future scares me. But I have accepted that they will happen. Death is a part of life.
We have a hard time sitting with that reality.
Religion has long been a tool for understanding and explaining the world. From the beginning of time, humans have used spiritual practices and stories to explain everything from the phenomena of the sun to fundamental questions about the meaning of life. We also turn to stories to elucidate the injustice of the world. We reach for the comfort religion brings us — mainly the promise of an afterlife — to give us some form of meaning. Of closure.
I can understand that. Having not been through such a traumatic experience as losing someone so enormously dear to me, I cannot fault or blame anyone for clinging to religious practices and promises to cope. In fact, I think all people should have the freedom to practice (or not practice) spirituality and religion in whatever way makes the most sense to them and brings them peace. If Bible verses, prayer, and talk of heaven helps you through the dark times in your life, I hope you have those things always. I hope they wrap you in love and lift you up.
But here’s the hard part. Just because those are your methods and your belief system, does not mean they are everyone else’s.
To truly be there for someone as they mourn, we have to recognize that grief is personal and everyone deserves to find light in their own ways. Imposing your belief system or coping mechanisms on someone else in pain does more to make you feel better than it does to comfort the person you are trying to reach.
When you tell me “God has a plan,” you are, first of all, assuming the term “god” means the same to me as it does to you. You are assuming I believe in a higher power at all, and that if I do, it is the same higher power you subscribe to. When you tell me your favorite Bible verses you think speak to my situation, you are using your belief system in an attempt to bring me comfort, without first recognizing that I may not identify with your belief system. In short, you are comforting yourself.
When we hear of other people’s sadness, it affects us. That’s the beautiful thing about humanity. We are not immune to each other’s pain. We physically feel pain when we see another person hurt. That’s why we cringe when we see violence on television. That’s why we reach for a hug when we see another person cry. We are physically and emotionally connected to other people, and it’s a wonderful thing.
So when we hear of another person’s struggles, we feel something. And again we are forced to see the injustice of the world. We rush to make sense of it. We want to make the person hurting feel better. Because if we can take away their pain, we can also feel better. If we can find some way to make sense of senseless tragedies, we can sleep better at night.
When you quote the Bible to me in an effort to give me comfort, what you are doing is trying to make sense of my story for yourself. You are trying to comfort yourself. You want to feel better. And while your intentions are genuine and pure, I think there’s a better way.
The truth about these situations is there is no fix. There is no way to bring comfort. There is no way to stop the pain.
In my experience, the only way to heal is to find your way through the pain. You have to lean into it. Let it wash over you. Let it pierce you. You have to feel it, hold it, experience it. And once you’ve done that, trudged your way through the misery and anger, put one foot in front of the other on the long journey to peace, you can begin to see the other side.
To truly be there for someone as they grieve, we must also lean into the pain. Talk if they want to talk. Cry if they want to cry. Become vulnerable — exposing our hearts and our fears and aligning them with the person whose sadness has overcome us. We must hold their hands and sink with them to the floor. Follow them to the depths of the hurt and stand beside them. We cannot promise light, but that we will walk with them in the dark.
When we find ourselves in the outer circle of a grieving person, we rarely know what to do. Deep down we know nothing we can say will fix it. Yet, we try. We try because we feel too, and we want desperately to help. As a society, we don’t discuss theses topics. We live as if we will never die, or that when we do we will get a second chance. We see loss as an isolated kind of lesson, instead of what it really is. A reality we all must deal with at some point. It doesn’t make sense to us. It isn’t fair. We are consumed with the task of answering the most persistent and heart-wrenching question, “Why?” So we explain it away.
I believe we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. To be a tender, kind and good person takes critical self-reflection and a lifetime of work. To hold someone else’s pain in our hearts and to sit with the horrors of the world shapes us into those kinds of people — the good ones. The ones with hearts as big as the sky. Whom we lean on to get through the darkness.
To become those people we must learn to mourn with those who mourn.