One of the most helpful things we can do for one another in times of great loss and pain is to let those who are hurting grieve.
I cannot tell you the times that someone has come to me during a time of terrible emotional pain, and I have cut them off with one of God’s promises or some pious platitude before they could finish. I thought I was offering them a piece of bread that would nourish and give them strength, but as I look back on that time I realize I just wanted them to move past the pain, because it made me uncomfortable.
When I thought was giving sound advice, I recognize I was just trying to control the conversation so we could move on to more positive things.
As I think about some of the things Christians have said to me during my own time of suffering, it has caused me to see more clearly what people in pain really need.
And sometimes what looks like well intended advice often feels more like a burdensome, crushing stone rather than nourishing bread.
I’ve been reading Dan Allender and Tremper Longman’s book this morning The Cry of the Soul. Their words have caused me to question my responses to my own emotional pain and to the pain of others.
I pride myself in being an emotionally strong person. I learned this at an early age in a home full of chaos, because it helped me to feel safe. My adopted father did not like for me to show negative emotions, because it upset him. He made me so angry, because I didn’t like the pressure I felt under to keep it together around him, however I hated chaos more, so I worked really hard to keep my emotions under control.
I didn’t like the pain I suffered when I upset my adopted father. He didn’t like the pain he suffered when I got upset. Do you see what’s going on? All of this pressure was coming from avoiding the pain.
I recognize I’ve done this to others in the church, and I feel very sorrowful about this now. I admit I still struggle. I think of my friend who went through a horrible divorce a little while ago. I tried so hard to make her feel better by saying the right things, when all she needed for me to do was sit with her in her pain, grieve with her, and let her know she wasn’t alone. I know this now, because this is what my own heart desperately longs for.
Allender and Longman say,
The Psalms provoke us to move out of denial. Christians are particularly adept at numbing themselves against painful emotions. “After all,” we reason, “we should be joyful because we know that God is in control.” Negative emotions such as fear, anger, or depression are stigmatized as inappropriate because God is love and grants us peace.
I’m not saying we don’t ever offer hope, because we definitely need the hope of God’s promises. I just believe that we need to pay closer attention to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and recognize that sometimes we just need to sit through the discomfort of another’s pain and listen. To take our time and be patient with their pain, to give a hug and let them know that it is OK to feel bad about whatever they have lost without the compulsion to fix their pain. To consider even that it is perfectly OK to end a conversation without giving them a promise or platitude that communicates they need to accept this pain and move on quickly. To trust God to take them through the stages of grief in His perfect time. And if in doubt about what they need, to maybe ask.
We are encouraged in scripture to bear one another’s burdens, not carry their loads. When I take the responsibility upon myself to fix another’s problems it feels like I’m carrying their load and it’s too heavy, because I’ve already got my own load. I’m not made to carry anyone else’s load, only Christ is able to do that. Carrying others loads leads to unhealthy emotional attachments and codependency. When we recognize that we don’t have to fix another’s pain we are actually freed to love them in a much more healthy way for us and them.
Please hear me I am not being critical. I am the “chief of sinners” in this area and I am preaching to myself! And I don’t want to be in another train wreck like I was before. I’m striving for healthy relationships with others, because that is where God’s love is revealed best to us and to the world.
In The Cry of the Soul, Allender and Longman quote Psalm 88. The words brought me great comfort. The Psalmist is crying out to God in his time of terrible troubles. It’s obvious he has lost so much and is at the end of his rope. He’s angry, weak, alone and feels trapped. He wonders if his life will ever be useful. He declares darkness is his closest friend. Reading this I felt so understood.
One of the things that stands out about this psalm is the psalmist says nothing positive. At the time, he is lost in his pain. Many of the psalms end with declaration that the psalmist will trust God, but not this one. This psalmist has let out all his pain, because he is desperate and knows where to go for his only source of hope. And I can hear God saying in the silence: It’s OK to just let it all out. I’m here. I’m listening. I give you permission to grieve.
Psalms 88:1-18 NLT
O lord , God of my salvation, I cry out to you by day. I come to you at night. Now hear my prayer; listen to my cry. For my life is full of troubles, and death draws near. I am as good as dead, like a strong man with no strength left. They have left me among the dead, and I lie like a corpse in a grave. I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me. Interlude You have driven my friends away by making me repulsive to them. I am in a trap with no way of escape. My eyes are blinded by my tears. Each day I beg for your help, O lord ; I lift my hands to you for mercy. Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? Interlude Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness? O lord , I cry out to you. I will keep on pleading day by day. O lord , why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me? I have been sick and close to death since my youth. I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors. Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me. Your terrors have paralyzed me. They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long. They have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.