Yesterday I was shopping for some things at my favorite store and a lady was in front of me in line at the register ~ an absolutely adorable older woman who was dressed “just so.” We started talking and she told me she was 84. It was clear she had taken really good care of herself and she didn’t look nearly her age – I had pegged her to be much, much younger. We were engaging in some conversation as the cashier was scanning her items and then when she went to pay, she flipped open her wallet, and a photo of a beautiful young woman was right there on top when she did so.
The cashier looked down and said, “Oh…is that a picture of when you were younger? How incredibly beautiful!” And right away the woman got a wistful look in her eyes and said, “No…no…that’s not me…that’s my daughter. She passed away…”
Instantly the cashier looked horrified that she had said anything. The older woman got tears in her eyes. She said, “It’s still hard, even after the years have passed. I keep her picture there to keep her in my heart every day…and remember her. You’re right, she sure was beautiful...so beautiful…”
The cashier started crying and kept trying to apologize but I just gave her a look like, “it’s okay, don’t worry” and continued a conversation with the lady a bit and just gave her opportunity to share with us. In a few minutes she looked actually a bit more lighthearted and happy than when she came in as she headed off with her merchandise. However when she left the cashier turned and said to me, “I never should have said anything! Why did I open my mouth?! I can’t believe I did that” And so, I took the time to have an impromptu counseling session at the register.
I shared with her that actually, in the majority of cases, people WANT to talk about the loved one they lost when they are grieving. They don’t want everyone to act like it never happened, or that their loved one never existed, or that everything is just fine.
Some people believe that when someone experiences significant loss, they need to stay away from the subject at all costs, and avoid it. Truthfully that is one of the worst things you can do. Among the other “worst things” are saying things such as: He’s in a better place now," "It was God’s will," "Things will go back to normal before you know it," "Time heals all wounds," “God needed another angel,” and"You need to be strong." What are these? They are all statements and cliches that minimize the reality and pain that the person is feeling and the very last thing they want to hear.
So what kinds of things help a person who has experienced a loss? First of all, just let them talk and don’t require them to measure their words. It might not sound all nice or theologically correct when it comes out. They are angry. They are confused. They are hurt. This is all part of the grieving process. Be a great listener – that’s the first thing they need.
When someone in our family died, a family member who was torn apart by grief the day after the death told my daughter Savanna that God needed to turn the person into an angel and that’s why they died. Although that was completely biblically incorrect, I didn’t correct them right then in front of Savanna – it wasn’t the time. I took Savanna aside privately that night and said, “Honey, so and so didn’t turn into an angel. But right now, the person who told you that is just hurting and confused and that is why they said that to you. They are trying to make sense of all this and it doesn’t make sense to them right now. It’s not the time for us to correct them, it’s just time right now for us to love them and let them cry right now. The time to sort it all out will come a little bit later.”
When people first experience loss they just want someone to be there to hold them and cry. You don’t even have to say anything at all. Some people look at those who are hurting, and think, “I wouldn’t know what to say…so I’ll just avoid them.” And that’s one of the worst things you can do because then the person just thinks you don’t care. It will mean the world to them just to have you sit there quietly beside them.
When my husband and I lost our first child to a miscarriage back when we were in bible college, some people said some pretty strange things to us. When I told the ladies at my work about my miscarriage and was crying about it at work, one of them said to me, “Oh, don’t be upset…this isn’t really that big a deal…you’re young – you’ll have plenty of kids.” Another lady in the church leaned over after service one day and whispered to me, “you probably should be thanking God that this happened. The baby was probably retarded and God spared you of dealing with all that…”
But Pastor Jeff Ferguson, my husband's baseball coach, and the Dean of Men at the time at the college, came over to our apartment right away as soon as he heard the news. Pastor Jeff didn’t have any profound words for us. He didn’t read from the Bible. He didn’t quote anything. He just sat next to us on the couch and cried with us. It meant so much. Those two ladies made me want to curl up in my bed and never come out of my apartment again, but Pastor Jeff? He was like a healing balm to our souls. When he left that night, it was like for a moment in time we could emotionally breathe again. If you’ve been through something like this before, you know what I mean.
I encouraged the cashier yesterday ~ she hadn’t done a bad thing at all. In fact, it was probably the highlight of that lady’s day to talk about her daughter who she misses so much. I hope the cashier learned a little something yesterday about comforting and encouraging a person who has experienced loss, and I hope if you are dealing with someone in the same situation, maybe this helped you today too.