Monica Maxon is involved with Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., and ecumenical organization for both individuals and congregations.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 25, 1984, p. 93. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Insights about dealing with death and loss as opportunities for community growth and sharing are sharpened by practical suggestions. “If we can’t care about each other in community, in our little or large band of followers, how will we reach beyond those boundaries?”
An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. . . .To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. [C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961) Pp. 10, 11]
We cannot go through life without the illness or death of a loved one, our own illness, the illness or death of a relationship. Yet something in us makes us shy away from those who are sorrowing deeply, keeps us from those who need us most.
Perhaps it is, as author C. S. Lewis suggests, our sense of embarrassment that inhibits us. In college, I was awakened abruptly in the early morning with the news that my suitemate’s father had died suddenly, unexpectedly. Half-awake, I followed some spontaneous, unprepared sense of how to respond. I went to her, held her, said how sorry I was. Had I been more alert, I would undoubtedly have felt more awkward and might not have been able to say or do anything. What I did was little enough, but it was, I see now, an important gesture, a sign, a symbol -- however meager -- of my caring.
Tiny gestures have huge importance to those who are grieving. And without some sign, some obvious, loving signal, no matter how caring we may feel inside, we will appear callous and cold.
Probably because our church communities are where we expect to find these signals of comfort in times of greatest need, we are bereft, almost spiritually injured, when we do not. I think of Rachel and Ed, who were devoted to their small church community, giving it much time and love. Several years ago, when Ed developed severe mental problems and was hospitalized, Rachel found herself isolated, alone, at a time when the community might have enveloped her with love. “People won’t talk to me,” she said. A year or so after Ed’s first hospitalization, they left their community and the denomination, seeking a more caring Christian home.
My friend Sylvia used nearly the same words to describe her situation. Both she and her husband were deeply committed to their nearby church community, but when he left her and their two small children, she went to one worship service, then could not continue. Those who had been her Christian companions talked about her, she said, not to her. She preferred to stay at home.
She needed to feel stronger before she could return. Unfortunately, that feeling is all too common. Instead of going to the community when in despair, we wait; we gather our resources outside the community. The grieving person puts up a good front for the church, but no real sharing occurs.
The act of condolence is a difficult task for most of us. We don’t know what to say -- we might even say something stupid -- and are afraid the distraught one might cry, break down completely; too much time has elapsed, and we’d feel silly, out of place, saying something now; maybe if we can just be extra nice . . . but really, she looks like she wants to be left alone. Or the ultimate excuse: It’s the clergy’s [other roles may be substituted] duty to comfort and care, not mine.
Most of these excuses are all too familiar. I know what panic I felt approaching a man who’d lost his wife of many years, both of whom were members of my church; or the man whose very young brother had died months earlier: Was it too late to say something? I remember only too well how I avoided the woman who (virtually asking for support) announced that she and her husband were separating. I am certain that when I have occasionally conquered my nervousness I have said ridiculous or foolish things.
But it’s not only awkwardness we feel; it’s fear, as Lewis also mentions. To approach the person who suffers somehow jeopardizes our own stability. It’s as if we come face to face with a part of life we don’t want to see, so that often it appears that instead of “protecting” the one who is suffering, we are protecting ourselves. When my mother died recently and I was trying to understand ‘the small response from my church community, I began to wonder if I also, because of my closeness to death, was a too-vivid reminder and repellent to others. I can’t be certain, but I had a sense of being ignored. People avoid each other because, quite simply, it isn’t easy to relate to the sorrowing, hurting person directly.
We sometimes deflect our concern to the spouse, other relatives or friends, but it isn’t enough. Nor is it enough after a discreet period of time to try to ask “How are you?” meaningfully, because we still have not named the sorrow -- the death, illness or desertion -- and we need to refer to it directly for healing to begin. But it’s that naming that we leave to someone else as we surround ourselves with excuses and fears.
While it is true that those who have experienced a particular grief may be better suited to help someone in the same situation, it is also certain that we don’t have to have a marriage coming apart at the seams to understand one that is. and we don’t have to have cancer to empathize with one who does. We must be cautious because, once more, we may be merely excusing ourselves when, in fact, we all know pain, little and big deaths. The key is to realize our commonality and connections.
Certainly grief is, in a sense, untouchable. No word or gesture can really alleviate the pain and sorrow that must be lived through, nor can we deny the ambivalence of the one we would approach; for that person (as Lewis also aptly describes) is often in a state of wanting/not wanting contact. But what the words and gestures do is let the griever know that she is not alone, that the community cares.
Thus, if we are a church we must somehow make our caring real, tangible. We can’t assume that people are aware of how much we feel without our showing them. And those moments when we do suspend our awkwardness and fears are special, hallowed moments. They are the simple, small gestures I recall so vividly: The eyes of a woman and her hug, no words needed; the Hallmark card with a few words written on the bottom; the brief “I’m sorry about your mother.” It’s not so much what we do (we should do what seems most suited), but that we do something.
Yet if one thing is clear it is that such caring probably won’t come without some real cost to the caring individual. It also probably won’t come without some education (some how-to) and life experience. Caring can be spontaneous, but often, especially in a diverse community, it is more a calling; a responsibility -- something we cannot neglect just because we feel we are no good at it or because we do not know the sorrowing person well enough. We are forced to choose. We can keep making our excuses, forming more rationalizations (parents are expected to die, after all -- it’s normal; my good marriage might be too hard for her to take; in an urban setting, what can you expect? people just aren’t as involved with each other), or we can face our responsibilities as Christians in and out of community.
Toward this latter choice, clergy can and must enable church members by education and example, for if they attempt to take on a caring role by themselves, they do a disservice to the church. Some communities have developed study and support groups for learning skills and using potential, and these are to be encouraged. (The Alban Institute in Washington, D.C., has written guidelines for such a formation in the booklet “My Struggle to Be a Caring Person.”) Always, however, our caring should be rooted in prayer, supported by others, surrendered to God.
What we are actually doing is God’s caring; that which seems difficult, impossible -- designed for the perfect beings which we are not -- can be done only by faith in God’s will and power. Whatever happens will be from God, not us: God in and through us working toward healing. Whatever we do is not done alone.
As Henri Nouwen has put it, there is great power (God’s power) in sharing our own wounded being with another; our wounds (recognized and embraced) can become a source of healing. Since we cannot escape being wounded and still be human, still be alive, all we are really doing is sharing ourselves. But when we do share, scars and all, the “wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision”; they “are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope” (The Wounded Healer [Doubleday, 1972], pp. 96, 95).
Something more also: If we can’t care about each other in community, in our little or large band of followers, how will we reach beyond those boundaries? It’s as if the church is a practice ground; we learn and struggle to care for each other and through this process begin to extend ourselves outward. If caring for the people inside the community is neglected, we will have even more difficulty (and a tendency toward superficiality) with those outside.
There is a passage in Luke in which Jesus meets a widow whose only son has died. The RSV reads, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her,” while the New English Bible ending says, “his heart went out to her.” As a nurturing, Christ-formed community, we must seek to be compassionate, for it often does not come “naturally” -- so that our hearts may go out to others.