Guest post by Sharyl West Loeung
I didn’t know I was afraid of scorpions until I awoke one night around 3am to a strange sensation on my face. A couple of painfully confused moments later, complete with a 2nd and 3rd sting on my arm and hand, my fear of scorpions was forever solidified. One experience was enough. The more I read about them, the harder I prayed to never encounter one again.
There are those things in life, whether learned or observed, we distinctly know we want to avoid. From heights to vermin to small spaces, we do everything we can to make sure we are safe from the things that frighten us the most. When “worst fears” is a question on a friendly game of Family Feud, I believe if we knew ourselves better, the number one answer would not be public speaking, but grief. The experience of loss and the grieving process that follows is life-altering in such a way the idea of voluntarily submitting to the process is absurd. And yet that seems to be what we as Christians are called to do.
Paul writes in Romans 12 not only are we called to “rejoice with those who rejoice” but also “mourn with those who mourn…”
If grief is something we must face, both corporately, such as in the death of nine fellow Christians in Charleston, South Carolina, or personally, when a friend loses someone they love, we must learn to do so well. But, how?
1) Eliminate words like “but” and “at least” from your vocabulary
We’ve all experienced this to some extent or another, you are telling a person about your lousy day, the stress of family, the thing that keeps you up at night and their response is “Yeah well at least you didn’t…” This can be done to communicate the hearer’s belief they’ve experienced worse, but usually it is meant to be a form of good cheer. As in, “hey, it could be worse.” Well, of course it could be worse, but right now I feel suffocated by my loss, and I don’t have to energy to even think about the worst. Instead, I really need someone to listen, but in communicating in “buts” and “at leasts” you have communicated you are not a safe person for me to express my raw, unfiltered emotions to. I don’t need to be reigned in; I just need a listening ear. Allowing a person to speak without correction or comparison creates a space for processing and reflection, two vital steps in the grieving process.
2) Practice Empathy
Romans 12 addresses the issue of living well to a community learning what it means to be Christians. When Paul gets to the imperative of rejoicing and grieving with those who do the same it is a call practice empathy. A common misconception about empathy is that is requires the same experiences to identify with a person in a particular situation. But Empathy does two things: it acknowledges the reality and depth of the pain a person is experiencing, and it says, “I see you. You’re still in there. I’m going to stand right here and keep reminding you that you are alive.” The avoidance of people experiencing loss often stems from the fear of saying the wrong. It’s a valid concern, but step one in participating in someone’s grief is showing up, acknowledging the reality of someone’s pain, and sticking around for the long haul.
Americans are completionists. We love our checklists and our goals and our accomplishments. We like to see things done on a deadline. All great attributes on the day-to-day that make us lousy grief companions. There is no linear timeline to the process of grieving. There is no checklist. Grief takes time with no particular ending point. When we commit to grieving with those that grieve we must commit ourselves to times of pause. Solidarity may look a lot like slowing down the rhythms of our normal lives to reflect on others’ loss. It may mean taking time to sit in silence with someone who just isn’t ready to be alone. It may meaning remembering to stop and pray not only in crisis but in the days to come as a family rebuilds. It is often in the pause that we learn best how to be empathic people. It is in the practicing of this spiritual discipline that we become more Christ-like.
Grief is hard. And messy. And something entirely unavoidable in a healthy human being. As we decide to follow the call of Christ, may we become people that learn to grieve well.
Sharyl West Loeung holds a Master of Divinity degree from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. She currently works in the Department of Multicultural Affairs at Baylor University. A licensed minister, she enjoys supply preaching in Central Texas as well as serving in her home church. Sharyl’s interests include social justice movements, cross-cultural and inter-generational community, and liturgy. Her favorite things in life include: her husband and adorable toddler, her zoo (let’s not confess the number of pets she owns here), a good Netflix binge, hammock naps, and avidly following sports and theater in equal measure.