The Terrible Awkwardness of Grief

I have never wished so intensely for an extrovert’s ease with people than when I’ve faced the grief of friends.

Quietness and words come more naturally to me than other things, but grief is a language I’ve had to learn repeatedly.

A long time ago, I heard a college professor talk about a student who would come to visit him at the hospital every day when his wife was dying of cancer. The student would bring two peanut butter sandwiches, and they would eat them side by side, and when they were done the student would get up silently and leave. I may be muddling some of the details, but I remember how gently and gratefully the professor told this story, and how much comfort the student’s simple visits had brought him in his grief.

Not long after that story imprinted itself on my mind, a friend lost his mother to cancer. Another friend was diagnosed with a chronic disease, on top of other conditions. Yet another began a long struggle with infertility. My best friend’s mother, full of mirth and joy at our college graduation, passed away from cancer just three short years later. Earlier this year, two of our long-time friends lost their beautiful baby boy, named Caleb.

I speak of grief as a language, but at the core of this human experience, the problem isn’t finding the right words to say. It’s learning to care. Caring, moreover, in a very specific way: caring in the long-term without being swallowed up by cynicism or despair, caring and waiting without pulling the griever into a stage for which she isn’t ready yet.

One thing that amazes me is how kind people in mourning have consistently been, even when I likely said things that — had I known their effect — should have made me stuff my boots in my mouth. They have been incredibly kind in this, and in allowing others into their pain.

Through them, I am learning how to be present, learning how to sit in trenches remembering and asking things in prayer and turning my face to the side to weep and wrestle to understand the goodness of God. Their roads are not mine, but in my proximity to them I have the overall sense of becoming more “Real,” like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, from having seen the sorrowing side of love.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Margery Williams

I think all of us have minded the hurt of the past few years — minded deeply, brokenly. But every one of these friends has grieved with hope, in such a way that speaks steadily of a Reality they know beyond this current time, and so the Horse’s words still ring true about them. From their Realness comes hope, as well as real wracking sobs, and dead-eyed silence.

I’ve long since found there aren’t any golden words of comfort that will allay every kind of grief. Instead:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

– 2 Cor. 1:3-4, ESV

When I could not find a foothold out of postpartum depression, when I hollered at 911 operators for instructions thinking I might lose my daughter, and when I was sick enough that I thought my daughters might lose me, the greatest comfort I had from God was that I was remembered — that we were not forgotten. In those seasons I remember that it wasn’t so important what friends said, but that they, too, remembered: that the deadweight of my troubles had snagged the hem of their thoughts. So this is the best comfort I know to offer others now: caring, sitting, waiting.

Grief is awkward, perhaps the most terrible form of awkwardness that exists.

But — if I may be so bold as to propose it — let’s let it be awkward.

Let’s allow the event of someone else’s grief to be the squeaky wheel in our everyday trains of thought.

Let’s permit it to haunt us.

And very often, when we remember those who grieve, and wait with them, and pray, when we care — we will be present to see what happens next.

None of the mourners at Jairus’ daughter’s bedside, or Lazarus’ grave, or even Jesus’ tomb could reverse the cause of their grief. The details of these deaths belonged to a plan far greater than themselves. But they grieved with the ones who had loved the deceased most, and so they were there when God changed the descending trajectory of life into death.

I think of our own beloved friends — how beautiful it has been to see them celebrate marriage and new jobs and new hopes coming to full term. I’m humbled to be joined to believers who hold sorrow while looking to the promise of joys to come, here and in the hereafter. And I am grateful to have witnessed the turns brought about by the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

– Romans 12:15, ESV

I’m still learning how to do this: how to mourn, how to care, and how to show that I do.

But even as I fumble to better speak the language of grief with love, I’m reminded again and again that He has already spoken the final word.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
– Matt. 5:4, ESV.



This post is part of a 31 day series about Loving God as an Introvert

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