Transforming Grief into Compassionate Action

Following is an article I wrote for a Church of the Brethren publication several years ago. The content is still relevant and timely, so I wanted to share with my readers here. 

When our infant daughter died in 2007, the world as my husband and I knew it forever changed. We were never again privy to a naïve pregnancy and we have never parented our two subsequent children without a sacred awareness of the brevity and frailty of life. 

Looking back, Ihave often pondered how Lee and I experienced the exact same loss and yet processed our grief so differently. I rehearsed again and again the details surrounding Sadie’s premature birth and her death seventeen hours later with several close family members. I needed to talk about her, to honor her existence by telling her story. Lee on the other hand, internalized his grief to the point there were times I questioned if he was really sad. Of course he was grieving, I could see it in his countenance, in the way he carried himself. The long stares into space were times of deep reflection and when he did talk about Sadie, there was a catch in his voice that revealed how painful it was to speak his grief aloud. 

And yet the process was still unpredictable. As verbal as I was about my grief, there were many times I excused myself early from an event, left a full cart in thegrocery store, or ignored the ringing phone on the chair beside me. Just when people thought they had figured out how to support me, I was feeling something different and they were confused.

Since my time of raw grief I have wept with many families connected through The Sadie Rose Foundation, a non-profit (501c3) Lee and I founded in memory of our daughter. We offer non-clinical peer support to those in our community grieving the death of a child. What I’ve discovered is that our story is their story and their story ours. Certainly not because we have all known the same loss; some have had adult children die, some teenagers, some young children, some infants, yet the messiness and unpredictability of grief has become predictable, normal. And that’s where healing happens. To know we’re not alone. To sit with someone who will never say they know exactly how you feel and yet understand they know very well the emotions you are experiencing. 

Grief is universal. Its source varies from death and tragic events, natural disasters, divorce, job loss, infertility, effects of aging, loss of relationships, among others. Grief can touch us on a global, national, and personal scale. Many were impacted globally as the tragic events unfolded in Paris. The Church of the Brethren has united to support war-torn families in Nigeria. We grieve over headlines and statistics of persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. We mourn for children and the innocent living in violence and destruction. While we might be removed from the specificity of that kind of violence, we grieve for those who live in these shattered worlds. 

Closer to home are those within our national borders impacted by floods, storms, racial tensions, and violence. We grieve, and we respond by supporting and sending disaster response teams, by praying, and by taking action at localized levels. 

Still closer, are the individuals and communities within our own circles living with terminal illnesses, saying good-bye to loved ones, searching for work, struggling to keep their families together, transitioning into nursing care, longing for children. In reality, everyone around us is likely dealing with grief in some form, at some level. Yet as a society, we seldom pause to honor the grieving process.

Those in grief often insist they are okay because expressions of grief can cause others to feel uncomfortable. Supporters can become confused about the messages they are receiving from the grieving person. Whether we are the grieving or the supporter, one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and others is the validation of our grief. 

Author Richard Rohr wrote, “If you don’t transform your suffering, you will transmit it.” Grief can shape and mold us into more empathetic caring people. Grief can cause us to reach out for something better, to do something to change that which caused our grief. But without that transformation, we transmit our grief, impose it, and contribute to the cycle of unresolved grief.

People often just need to talk and process to a non-judgmental listening ear. Proverbs 25:30 says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Whether someone is grieving because of a global concern, a national crisis, or a community or personal situation, we are called to weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:25) To do anything less, to supply reasons and explanations, to respond with platitudes and clichés, is like singing songs to a heavy heart. 

Research shows that we cannot simply “get over” traumatic events or “move on” after a period of grieving. A façade does not mean we’re okay and suppressed grief often reemerges in painful ugly ways. Processing grief, honoring its patient work in our lives, helps us find a “new normal.”  We find ways to incorporate our experiences into our narratives that often results in hope and healing. 

As followers of Jesus, let us move with compassion toward suffering, extending grace and sharing hope. As Anthony Sinople said, “How we walk with the broken speaks louder than how we sit with the great.” 

 

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