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Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

I rejoice with friends who, at this time of the year, post every day on Facebook things for which they are thankful.  I share many of their sentiments.  I am reminded, however, in the midst of eight deaths in the last month, that there are also many in our congregation who have lost those people and things that have given them the greatest blessing in the past; people who find this season of Thanksgiving to be particularly hard.    

While others are cooking and decorating for the big ‘turkey day’ dinner, and starting to shop for Christmas, those who have lost are experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness.  Life as it goes on around them feels too loud, and too frivolous.  They can’t engage in the present because of their fears for the future; they sense their lives are out of control. Memory loss, unexpected tears, stomach upsets, chest pain, and an inability to focus plague their long days and sleepless nights.

Their church families, neighbors and friends want to help, but hardly know how.  Grieving people seem to be stamped ‘Fragile, Handle with Care.’ We are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that saying nothing at all seems easier.  Or, in a rush to express sympathy, we speak without thinking of the impact of our words.

Dr. Kenneth Hauck, founder of The Stephen Ministry, has written DON’T SING SONGS TO A HEAVY HEART offering what he calls ‘Tools for Compassionate Caring.’ 

Dr. Hauck suggests that, before visiting a grieving friend or neighbor, we spend a few minutes remembering our own life losses:  the loss of a loved one, the loss of a pet; loss of physical health, loss of a scholarship or a job in which we felt challenged and creative – a job we thought we’d have forever.  Remembering our own reactions to loss can help us put ourselves in the other’s shoes. We aren’t the same people we were before our loss.  Neither is the person to whom we offer care just like he or she was.  We need to put ourselves in the right frame of mind….not to talk about ourselves or OUR loss; just to remember what loss feels like.

When my mother died last year, I gratefully received cards from friends and church members.  I had trouble absorbing immediately all the words on all the cards.  So I saved them…and on the anniversary of Mom’s death, I read them again and found them deeply meaningful. Cards were easier to receive than calls, I admit, unless I knew the caller very well, and didn’t need to struggle to find or express the right words. 

When you send a note, write what is in your heart.  Share with the one who grieves things you remember about the loved one they lost.  Don’t try to be overly optimistic about the grieving friend’s future; don’t visit or call with a ‘fix it’ mentality.  Don’t encourage the grieving friend to ‘get over it.’  Try to avoid using clichés, platitudes or pat phrases.  Also, avoid using Scripture inappropriately. 

So many people say, with the best of intentions, “He’s at peace now.”  And, though that is true, it’s not easy to hear immediately after a loss.  Avoid, especially, the misinterpretation of scripture taken out of context.  “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle” is a commonly used platitude that is only loosely based on I Corinthians 10:13, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”   This verse is not at all about pain and suffering, but about resisting temptation.  Likewise, saying, “It was God’s will that you lost your mobility in the accident,” is extremely hurtful to hear.  Some have told me that it took years to work through anger towards God and much prayer and personal study to figure out that God is there to help us through our issues, and that God cries when we cry.

I remember a friend telling me that, after a job loss, a well-meaning friend said, while slapping him jovially on the back, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Another shared the story that, in the midst of her very painful divorce, a co-worker said, “Hey, let’s go out tonight….you’ll forget all about him!”  That language is not helpful immediately after a loss.  Humor can help in the healing process, but usually not at first.  The initial shock has to wear off and sometimes physical healing from grief’s symptoms needs to occur before hurting people can enjoy humor.

Sharing meaningful reading material is also something that helps - once things ‘settle down.’  It’s often hard to concentrate after a loss, and brief conversations are more helpful than feelings of compulsion to read suggested books.

If your friend or family member has lost a loved one, go to the memorial service or funeral.  Sign the guest book.  It will be a tangible reminder of your friendship at a difficult time.  Later, give your friend or neighbor a time to talk, should that be helpful.  Give her or him an opportunity to share stories. Listen respectfully without interruption as loss is expressed.  Try to allow the grieving friend to weep without showing signs of discomfort.  Just ‘being there’ is a meaningful expression of loving support.

Posted by Anne Clark Duncan at 6:30 AM
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