Nearly one year ago Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew committed suicide after struggling with mental health issues for years. No matter what your opinion of their ministry or books, they are parents who lost their son and have had to go through the process of loss and grieving in the public eye.
Kay Warren wrote the following recently, and I think it is worth reading by those of us who want to love others through times of grief and mourning.
It’s not always easy to know what to say or how to treat people who are grieving, but Kay’s words give insight into the thoughts and feelings of someone in that situation, which can help us empathize and know how to love people well in these times.
As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on. The thousands who supported us in the aftermath of Matthew’s suicide wept and mourned with us, prayed passionately for us, and sent an unbelievable volume of cards, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, and gifts. The support was utterly amazing. But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.
Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently. “People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad. Obviously, this is no longer accepted practice; mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments. What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”
None of us wants to be like Job’s friends – the pseudo comforters who drove him mad with their questions, their wrong conclusions and their assumptions about his grief. But too often we end up a 21st century Bildad, Eliphaz or Zophar – we fill the uncomfortable silence with words that wound rather than heal. I’m sad to realize that even now – in the middle of my own shattering loss – I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me. We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well.
Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”