Like ocean waves that ebb and flow, we desire to show compassion and care to those who, in deep anguish, flounder in seas of grief that often, unexpectedly, knock them over. Their grief sends crashing waves over them, while we who desire to help, press forward and pull back like storm swells erratically pounding the shoreline.
At the time of a death, the funeral, or a memorial service, I’ve often noticed what I call “holy anesthesia.” By this I mean that God allows us to simply function, or do the next thing as Elisabeth Elliot often counseled.
The grieving family may feel pressure to have an open casket so friends, family, neighbors can see the deceased. In 1975, my mom felt that pressure, and though the body lying in the casket, felled at 59 by brain cancer, little resembled my dad, she reversed her earlier decision for a closed casket. Such viewings, often brutal on the family, may be waning. My father-in-law pastored for over 60 years and encouraged families to celebrate a life and present the Gospel through a memorial service.
I think back to a college comedy show when a fellow student’s monologue poked fun at thoughtless comments voiced at funerals, such as,”He looks so good,” or “She looks so much like herself.” Tragically, this young man died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after. How incongruous to see a hearse on our college campus, a place of young people just beginning life’s journey! Stark death had struck where and when we least expected it. At 18, I got a first-hand experience that put a young face to the word death. My faith held, but I remember the awkwardness of student conversations about Paul’s death. This incident happened over 50 years ago.
Today, folks can Google the 10 or 12 or any number of things not to say to grieving people or to do for them. And the perspective runs from Psychology Today to Christian, with many variations in between.
But really, how can we reach out– or pull back — to offer genuine help? I find the key often lies in the face-to-face bond you have with the person. Hitting the crying emoji on Facebook simply because you know someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows that person, rarely registers. If you personally know an extended family member, seek their advice regarding whether the grieving person is ready to deal with other people yet.
While I am extremely thankful for the resources of EMTs, policemen, clergy, and other professionals, I honor those who offer long-term, specific acts of mercy and encouragement to those who grieve long after the services and casseroles end.
Just one small example: In the mid 80s, I was privileged to teach a beautiful, brilliant, and vibrant young woman. A rare form of cancer attacked her body when she was in her early 40s, and took her life in about six weeks. Each year, on the day of her death, I write her mom an email. I try to include a specific I remember about Lisa’ high school years. Lisa’s mom responds, telling me about her son-in-law and the two granddaughters. And she thanks me for remembering the daughter she’ll never forget.
Please consider how you will care for those who grieve beyond their initial pain.