The past few months have proven to be some of the toughest of my life. But I’m beginning to feel like I’m emerging on the other side. I am forever grateful to all of you for allowing me to be so open and honest. To find comfort in community is one the most fortifying of experiences. To every woman who disclosed to me her story, you are powerful, important and your story matters. Thank you.
But there is one little thing that has been weighing on my mind. I have hesitated to write about it, because these things are so personal and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone who offered me grace and support. But of course, as with most topics I choose to take on, this one won’t leave me alone.
Before I dive in, here’s a short and sweet disclaimer: this is not an attack on religion. To every person who offered me words of compassion and strength — you matter to me. Your words meant something to me. You helped me find light in a sea of darkness and your genuine desire to make me feel better does not go unnoticed. But. I do think it is important to be reflective and to recognize when our good intentions do not quite hit the mark. As a spiritual person who does not align with traditional organized religion, here’s my take on grief and mourning and how to walk through darkness with people you love.
And also a point of clarification — I come from a background in the Christian tradition, and the majority of people in my life do as well. When I speak about faith or religion in this piece, it is mostly a commentary on Christianity. However, I want to recognize the broad array of religious disciplines and the many ways grief, mourning and loss are addressed across religious practices. All are valuable. Christianity is what I have the most direct experience with, so when I refer to religion in this piece, Christian practices are mostly what I am talking about. (And also, I want to acknowledge the vast differences among strands of Christianity. I can’t possibly comment on them all, but I do recognize there are differences).
I have been very fortunate so far in my life to experience a relatively small amount of loss. There have been funerals. There have been dark days. There have been struggles not directly related to death. But for the most part, I have not had my world shaken by the loss of a direct loved one. I have not lost a parent. Or a spouse. Or a sibling. Or a best friend. The fact that these events are inevitably part of my future scares me. But I have accepted that they will happen. Death is a part of life.
We have a hard time sitting with that reality.
Religion has long been a tool for understanding and explaining the world. From the beginning of time, humans have used spiritual practices and stories to explain everything from the phenomena of the sun to fundamental questions about the meaning of life. We also turn to stories to elucidate the injustice of the world. We reach for the comfort religion brings us — mainly the promise of an after life — to give us some form of meaning. Of closure.
I can understand that. Having not been through such a traumatic experience as losing someone so enormously dear to me, I can not fault or blame anyone for clinging to religious practices and promises to cope. In fact, I think all people should have the freedom to practice (or not practice) spirituality and religion in whatever way makes the most sense to them and brings them peace. If Bible verses, prayer and talk of heaven helps you through the dark times in your life, I hope you have those things always. I hope they wrap you in love and lift you up.
But here’s the hard part. Just because those are your methods and your belief system, does not mean they are everyone else’s. To truly be there for someone as they mourn, we have to recognize that grief is personal and everyone deserves to find light in their own ways. Imposing your belief system or coping mechanisms on someone else in pain does more to make you feel better than it does to comfort the person you are trying to reach.
When you tell me “God has a plan” you are, first of all, assuming the term “god” means the same to me as it does to you. You are assuming I believe in a higher power at all, and that if I do, it is the same higher power you subscribe to. When you tell me your favorite Bible verses you think speak to my situation, you are using your belief system in an attempt to bring me comfort, without first recognizing that I may not identify with your belief system. In short, you are comforting yourself.
When we hear of other people’s sadness, it affects us. That’s the beautiful thing about humanity. We are not immune to each other’s pain. We physically feel pain when we see another person hurt. That’s why we cringe when we see violence on television. That’s why we reach for a hug when we see another person cry. We are physically and emotionally connected to other people, and it’s a wonderful thing.
So when we hear of another person’s struggles, we feel something. And again we are forced to see the injustice of the world. We rush to make sense of it. We want to make the person hurting feel better. Because if we can take away their pain, we can also feel better. If we can find some way to make sense of senseless tragedies, we can sleep better at night.
When you quote the Bible to me in an effort to give me comfort, what you are doing is trying to make sense of my story and to comfort yourself. You feel better. And while your intentions are genuine and pure, I think there’s a better way.
The truth about these situations is there is no fix. There is no way to bring comfort. There is no way to stop the pain. In my experience, the only way to heal is to find your way through the pain. You have to lean into it. Let it wash over you. Let it pierce you. You have to feel it, hold it, experience it. And once you’ve done that……trudged your way through the misery and anger, put one foot in front of the other on the long journey to peace, you can begin to see the other side.
To truly be there for someone as they grieve, we must also lean into the pain. Talk if they want to talk. Cry if they want to cry. Become vulnerable….exposing our hearts and our fears and aligning them with the person whose sadness has overcome us. We must hold their hands and sink with them to the floor. Follow them to the depths of the hurt and stand beside them. We cannot promise light, but that we will walk with them in the dark.
When we find ourselves in the outer circle of a grieving person, we rarely know what to do. Deep down we know nothing we can say will fix it. Yet, we try. We try because we feel too, and we want desperately to help. As a society, we don’t discuss theses topics. We live as if we will never die, or that when we do we will get a second chance. We see loss as an isolated kind of lesson, instead of what it really is. A reality we all must deal with at some point. It doesn’t make sense to us. It isn’t fair. We are consumed with the task of answering the most persistent and heart-wrenching question, “why?” So we explain it away.
I believe we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. To be a tender, kind and good person takes critical self-reflection and a lifetime of work. To hold someone else’s pain in our hearts and to sit with the horrors of the world shapes us into those kinds of people — the good ones. The ones with hearts as big as the sky. Whom we lean on to get through the darkness.
To become those people we must learn to mourn with those who mourn.