In the river of grief, love is stronger than death

In light of the massacre in Orlando last weekend, for my column in today’s Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (6/19), I felt compelled to return to one of my oft-visited themes in the religion column — grief.  

After the horrific killings in Orlando last weekend a man said to me, “I just can’t imagine.” That response reminded me of a reply I heard from a person earlier this spring. After watching Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives by crowding onto flimsy boats and taking out across the Mediterranean Sea, he said, “I just can’t imagine.  Besides, I try to keep my emotions out of the news.”  
No argument from anyone that there is way more than enough pain in the world to go around.  But crossing your arms and keeping your feelings at bay plops you squarely in the land of numb.  Rather than living in denial, how about taking a cue from the New Testament writer Paul who instructed the faithful to embrace the full gamut of positive and painful emotions. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn,” he wrote.
Most people have no problem with the “rejoice with those who rejoice” part. “Way to go honey. You scored.  That’s the best base running I’ve ever seen.”  And of course the person who hears these words feels loved. 
But how about embracing the “mourn with those who mourn” part?  Maybe we could start by putting a moratorium on the phrase we’ve all said ten thousand times: “I just can’t imagine.” In Isaiah 53 it is prophesied that Jesus the Messiah will be a suffering servant, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.    
A person embracing the suffering and sorrow of others has to change “I just can’t imagine” to “I can only imagine.”  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Are you willing to uncross your arms and allow yourself to imagine the deep pain of someone else?  When I once asked a man that question, he instantly responded, “If I did that, I’d lose it, weeping and sobbing all over the place.”
“We’d be getting somewhere then, now wouldn’t we?” I asked.
Last Sunday morning when the news was breaking of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, my heart just sank. I said aloud, “God, what in the Sam Hill is going on down here anyway?”  Throughout the week I grieved the senseless loss of life and the terrible injuries inflicted on those who survived.
I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s deep sorrow as he read the names of those killed.  I listened to family members being interviewed.  Part of being emotionally healthy is being willing to weep with those who weep. That does not mean comparing our grief and pain with someone else’s.  Grief is as unique as each person and each relationship. I take my grief. You take yours.  We don’t trade places. In my ministry career, I’ve comforted enough grieving people to know that the worst grief you ever experience is your own.
That’s all the more reason we need to train ourselves to say, “I can only imagine.”  Imagining your pain helps keep me from saying, “Don’t feel bad” or “I know just how you feel” or “Be strong for others” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “You can still have other children” or “God has a plan” or “God is in control,” or 500 other things that are not helpful. 
The crux of coming alongside someone who is grieving is not saying the right words, as if there were any right words.  So just listen with your heart and your two ears and keep your mouth closed. The mortal enemy of being truly present for others is anxiety.  How often have we not known what to say or where to sit or what to do with our hands?  Believe me, your actual presence communicates love and value, which is of infinitely greater worth than your words. 
Most mornings I start the day reflecting and praying before moving on to read the news.  Very often I feel God’s love and affirmation as I pray.  Then I turn to the news of the morning where I find it’s not unusual for me to feel anger, puzzled or sad.  I might even say, “What in the Sam Hill is going on down here this morning? Is planet earth about to fall off the cliff?” And yes, all those emotions get jumbled together before 6 a.m. Welcome to life.    
Sad to say, but in this crazy world  you are pretty much assured of lots of opportunities to continue mourning with those who mourn.  When you do see others in pain please be ready with one of these caring responses:  “I can only imagine.” “I am so sorry.” “I was so hoping it would have been different.”

People who feel your compassion will feel loved.  Jesus said others will know we are his followers by the love we show.  Weeping with those who weep is one of love’s greatest gifts.  So don’t be afraid to jump into the river of grief. Only there can you truly imagine what others are feeling, and only there will you discover that love is even stronger than death.

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