Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Consoling the Grieving With Awkwardness and Goodwill

As you probably know, I don't write an advice column.  All of my posts are the fruit of my thought-life and experience, shared for your entertainment or very optimistically, to offer hope or help.   I have very few thoughts I am willing to impose on others as ideal or best-practice.  I generally assume people have already thought about what they are doing or saying and are motivated by their own reasons, in which case advice is neither sought nor appreciated.


I've been in a few situations lately, which have stirred something within me.  I've stayed up late writing about it, only to leave it again, afraid to offend or create scandal.  These situations involve being at someone's side whose world has been turned upside down by the death of someone they love.  I've been there at different stages for different people - during the dying, at the death, at the moment they learned about the death, days and months later.  

I count every one of these moments as a privilege and something sacred.  But, they are uncomfortable.  And yet, what is just as uncomfortable, is finding myself cringing in these same moments.

Not cringing at the love, which manifests itself as pain, tears, and grief in every form, but at what little we have to offer in the way of words.  But, we use them anyway.  And they fail to land in the heart of the hearer.  My fear is not that they do little good, but have the potential to harm.  To create distance.  A feeling of not being understood.

If there is little else, there is always a lot of goodwill in anyone at the side of a grieving person.  It is not an easy place to be.  We are likely struggling with our own grief and trying to help another with theirs.  We struggle to understand why spouses leave widows, children leave parents, parents leave children, and how full-term babies can die on their birth-day.  

We no more understand these things than the man on the moon.  But, if we're Christians, we know God is involved, so we run to the safe-place.  God's will.  It's the only way we can preserve our sanity and our faith.  This is all we have, and consequently, many times, what we offer to the grief-stricken.

In our attempt to console a grieving person, we offer the only comfort we can find for ourselves.  We remind them that the death of the one they loved is "for a reason".  "All part of God's plan".  Or that "God needed him/her more than you did."  Said another way, "All is as it should be."

If the grieving say and believe these things, then by all means, we can readily agree (if we believe them, too).  But, unless we're asked for our opinion, we should let the grieving one take the lead here.  It is hard to receive, "All is as it should be" when every fiber of your being says, "Nothing is as it should be."  

1 Corinthians 2:11 says, "For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?  So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."

We can know God is good.  We can know that He will bring good out of everything, as Romans 8:28 proclaims ("We know that in everything God works for the good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."), but we cannot know what God is thinking when he commands or allows a person to die.  We would do well to remember this when our turn comes to comfort the grieving.    

When someone is grieving, even a person with great faith, it is very possible that the God they believe in changes.  Maybe forever.  If you believed someone was responsible for causing you greater pain than you ever could have imagined, would it be any immediate consolation that the person responsible thought it out thoroughly ahead of time?    

The box made of our thoughts about God and how we relate to Him shatters.  But, we know God doesn't change.  God is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  We change. Understandably so, and probably for the best.  Ultimately, if we don't abandon faith altogether, we are forced to let God be God and to accept what we cannot know or understand.  An uncomfortable, but properly ordered relationship between creature and Creator.

No one has ever had the nerve to say it to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if amidst their distress, they were thinking, "To hell with God's plan."  The incredible thing is that God's plan did go to hell, as we're told in the Apostle's Creed: https://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/creed2.html.  He made provision for that, too.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
 I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Even hell or our thoughts of what belong there cannot change Who has been there and rose again. Jesus Christ.   This is our Christian hope.  The hope of the resurrection.  We do not need to know God's thoughts to know history.  

I am not an expert on any of this.  I believe everything we profess in the Creed.  But, I also believe the kindest thing can be to hold off on holding it out as our means to comfort.  Maybe I'm projecting my pain onto the grieving, but my heart hurts for them when their friends and family take away their freedom to express their pain, bewilderment, doubt, or anger with "God's plan".

 I thank God for the faith he has granted to me and the many truths related to it.  But, that doesn't mean they are a source of consolation in every moment, especially when you just want to be held.    

Please know that this post is the fruit of a growing conviction.  I have done and said everything here that I've advised against.  But, until we see God, Face to face, can I challenge you as I challenge myself, to grow more comfortable with your discomfort when consoling the grieving?

Appreciate the power of your presence.  Don't overestimate your need to say the right thing.  They will remember you were there, but probably won't remember what you said.  Stick with what you know.  Need some ideas?  "I love you."  "I'm sorry.  This is really hard."  "I don't know why this happened."  "Lord, increase our faith."  And if pressed, "God is going to bring good.  I don't know when or how, but I believe that He will."

God's plan reveals itself.  It doesn't need our words to herald it in.  Yet, I believe we are a big part of it - showing up in all of our awkwardness and goodwill, day after day.  Our presence, faith, hope, and love are our greatest gifts to the grieving, and other than God himself, the only remedy for suffering.  "The only thing worse than suffering, is suffering alone."  (Unknown source)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lily and the Puddle

This is our dog, Lily, after our walk today...

This is noteworthy because today was a big day for us.  Lily became my teacher.  

We got Lily at a local animal shelter the day before Easter, approximately six months ago.  She's our Easter Lily.  She has been the source of much joy and consternation.  The $5.00 we paid for her has seemed like $5.00 too much on many, many occasions.  These include repeated peeing on the carpet, getting into the trash and depositing its contents throughout the house, throwing up on various rugs, and some still-unresolved problem with anal gland expression.  I mean, really, it couldn't get any more disgusting.  My boys will eagerly tell you I love her the least of everyone in our family.  They're probably right.  

But, we all have our place with her.  Of the boys, the youngest is her "care taker", she loves to chase and nip at the middle one's calves, and she sleeps on the the bed of the oldest.  My husband trims her nails, bathes her, and has a love/hate relationship with her, as I do, depending on how recently she has offended our sensibilities and desire for order, and neutral smells.  I'm the one who walks her, and she seems to let this one positive aspect drape others less so.  

With a history of acute UPS-truck-related deafness, a proclivity for running, and a curiosity about everything, we've done a lot of cussing in our front yard, trying to give our new-ish canine family member a little freedom out of the house and off the leash.  It's slowly getting better.

So, today was a real experiment, as we ventured to some local trails off-leash, which is allowed, but your dog must be under voice control (underlined just like it says on the sign), at all times.  We were definitely gambling here.  I counted the cars on the way in to the parking lot, considering the likelihood of running into anyone, how many dog-fighting opportunities there might be, the possibility that my dog may just run off altogether, and how I would explain that to my boys, knowing they would be suspicious, since they think I hate her anyway.     

Nevertheless, we started out, and something wonderful happened.  

She was delighted to be free and delighted to be near me all at the same time.  It was like we'd been walking these trails for years and we were the subject of all the books written about man and his best friend.  Huh!

If I'm on a trail of any kind, I'm happy.  But, as we went along, I realized how my happiness multiplied at watching her enjoy her freedom, as well as being aware of her desire to share it with me. She didn't have to. She would race ahead and saunter back.  At all of the forks in the road, she was ahead of me, so she'd make a guess (usually the wrong one), but I'd call her name one time, and she would eagerly correct her course.  

As so often happens in my thoughts, God showed up and whispered, "See?".  Yes.  Yes, I see.

I saw many things.  I saw that her desire was to lay in every puddle of water we crossed.

I also saw that she was willing to abandon her puddle, if it meant parting ways with me.  I saw that I would feel sad for her if she had to pee on every tree, smell every leaf, or stay in every puddle she entered, at the cost of pursuing what was still ahead. 

Then, I thought of the patients I've visited in the hospital trying to detox from one addiction or another, and all of us who end up chasing some inherently good desire, and lose our freedom in pursuit of it.  We get stuck.  We come to a fork in the road, and we can't change course.  We can't get out of the puddle.  We like it too much.

As a wise man once told me, "You're not free to say 'yes' until you're free to say 'no'.  This is true for everything from everyday commitments to illicit pleasures.  Words to live by.

One patient who fought his addiction for twenty-something years, wasn't able to kick it until he was on the brink of losing his wife and kids, when he realized he loved them more than prescription drugs.  Based on his experience, it seems we ultimately lack the greater, stronger, and more noble desire to be with/for others and the One who made us for Himself.  There are as many explanations for this "lack" as there are people.  

We have this great thirst for freedom because our most fundamental aspiration is for happiness; and we sense that there is no happiness without love, and no love without freedom.  This is perfectly true.  Human beings were created for love, and they can only find happiness in loving and being loved.
-Interior Freedom, Jacques Phillipe

I think the same is true for dogs, which is why we relate to them so well.  

With our dog, it has taken six months to get to the place where her desire for communion outweighs everything else.   I guess this evolution of trust and desire has developed slowly and quietly (and sometimes very stinkily), as we've shared time and space under one roof.  Learning routines, things we love, and things to avoid at all costs.  Today, my dog was willing to leave her puddle or switch directions entirely, out of a desire to be with me, as inexplicable as that is. 

Can I move from master to dog in this story and let God take my place?  

Left or right, wet or dry, stay or go, it's all the same to me -- as long as I can remain in Your Presence. 
Can I become as free as my dog off-leash?  Is it even possible to spend enough time with God to learn to desire Him more than a puddle, money, sex, drugs, or anything else?  The saints challenge our flesh and our logic with a resounding YES.  It only feels impossible.