THE TAKE AWAY
By Kersley Fitzgerald
I was alone when I heard. Dev was deployed. I don't think our other friends, J&A, had moved to Hawaii yet. There had been a core of five couples in the small group when the first baby was born — a perfect girl. Six years later, she was dead. Her parents thought it was the flu, but it was a twisted colon. She died in pain, in her mother's arms, halfway to the hospital.
There wasn't anyone else around me who knew them. Another couple from the study was still in the Springs; yet another was in the army in Kentucky, I think. Maybe Tennessee. But no one else was near me, to remember the girl with sunshine hair who lit up her daddy's face like nothing else. Or the baby, the first and maybe only baby I ever attached to and who had held her 12-month arms out to me, figuring if mommy wasn't available, I was a suitable substitution. Or the toddler who had watched the wind catch the blades of grass I sprinkled on her head, and tried to repeat the move on a little boy with a handful of gravel.
A few months later, after Dev had returned from deployment and J&A had moved in four blocks away, Miss Sunshine's shell-shocked parents and brother came to visit. I didn't know what to do or say; just to be there, let them feel the sun and go to the beach. I didn't expect the bitterness, the anger, and the closed-off face that my dear friend wore. Or the comment when we went to the Pearl Harbor memorial, "At least they had a chance to live." I loved them, and I wanted to make it all better, but I didn't know how to act in that temporarily hopeless pit. I couldn't understand why my friend would push me away when I was mourning too.
I had gotten a tiny taste of it shortly after the little girl's death. Only one person in my large Bible study really talked to me about it — a single man a few years older than me. I was relieved to be able to speak my own words of mourning and have someone (semi) interested in hearing. "I just don't understand why God would do this," he said, real pain in his voice. It changed though, the night I shared that several people had come to Christ at her funeral. "Oh! That's why," he said. "God did have a reason." All I could think was, I sincerely doubt her mother thinks it was worth it. (This was second only to another acquaintance who, upon hearing the details, immediately dissected the event to determine how the parents could have prevented the tragedy.)
That visit with my friends came back to me this summer. You may recall our interesting June: GotQuestions.org's 10th anniversary party, overlapped by a couple of hours with the Waldo Canyon Fire, wherein I was evacuated to work at home in 100 degree weather with no A/C. That week, our friend tripped an IED and lost his lower legs. That Friday, another friend crashed into a tree and burned to death.
The next week, we went to visit family. I was desperately looking forward to sleeping, eating, and looking at green trees that weren't on fire. But, like anyone who's been through a rough time, we were rough ourselves. And I had forgotten that the particular family members we had come to visit were wounded in ways that made it difficult for them to take on another's emotional burden. Dev had suggested we spend the first few days at the coast, and I should have agreed. In the end, we came home somewhat refreshed, but we left our family overwhelmed and deeply concerned about our mental stability — which, of course, made us feel horrible again.
As the details of the Connecticut elementary school shooting seeped out, I was reminded of those two events from my past. I don't have a psychologist-recommended list of do's and don'ts. I don't have an answer for the argument between gun control and mental health care. I just have what I painstakingly learned from my own experiences being with friends who are hurting and being someone who needed a friend:
Give permission to everyone involved to be an idiot in whichever way they feel necessary at that moment.
For the hurting, it means to allow them the grace to verbalize and manifest what they are feeling. Even the most spiritual person has physical and emotional limits. Be the one who will sit in the dark pit with a friend and not need to find a flashlight. What they say may be contrary to their nature — acknowledge that such a response at that time is legitimate, though you may quietly hope it will be temporary. It takes time for God to work healing into a person's heart. Don't expect more from your friend than God does.
On the other hand, the hurting need to give their loved ones the grace to be insufficient. God provides all our needs; He often does so through other people. Which people and when are up to His orchestration, not our expectations. Look out for the signs that you may be overwhelming someone, then either back off a little or allow them to speak their own concerns. You may find that this person has provided all the support that they can, or you may find they just need a tiny sign of hope from you. And bear in mind that while your loss may feel all-consuming, their deep sadness for their hurting friend is just as legitimate.
God is the god Who works through history. He has worked in grace for 6000 years to guide people in the way they should go, and He uses an entire lifetime for individuals. Allow for that time. Give grieving friends grace — give yourself grace — to move toward healing. We want quick healing and quicker answers, but God doesn't always work that way. Grace is allowing God to work in His way, not our own. And only His way brings real healing.
Image Credit: Alex; "Grief — September 11, 2011"; Creative Commons
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