Facebook has opened up opportunity to connect with people’s grief in new ways and with greater scope. As news of my “friends” trickles past me at points throughout my day, there is almost always an update about someone’s loss, someone’s sickness, someone’s tragedy. And I have been drawn near to grief that, in reality, is quite relationally distant from me simply by reading posts or following links and facing the heartbreak of others from the very safe distance of my sofa.
Recently a friend posted a link to one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl that shows the love of a community for someone who is grieving. As one of the women explains her presence (and casserole): “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”
I remember stepping off an airplane in Portland, Oregon after a ministry trip to Chicago turned into a week-long stay mourning the tragic death of a young man I had loved dearly. My roommate and friends met me at the airport with words of kindness; they got my luggage and drove me home, and later that night I found myself alone in an empty house. I recall walking down the stairs from my bedroom and crumpling part-way, and there I sat for some time sobbing on a middle stair.
Later that evening there was a knock on my front door, and as I opened it, I was surprised to see Doug standing there alone. We were nothing close to romantically involved at this point, and I don’t remember what he said or if I spoke; what I do remember is the wet of his raincoat surrounding me as I sobbed like a child.
“After a tragedy, those of us on the outside often wonder what to say. We look for the escape hatch of a platitude or a verse. Or we are tempted to think we need to offer a reason, find a purpose, or defend God. We shouldnâ€™t. A simple, â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ is appropriate. God doesnâ€™t need us to be his PR reps, and people in midst of calamity arenâ€™t asking questions, at least not yet. Usually theyâ€™re simply trying to keep going, take the next step, and figure out how to live this new, strange life.”
After a while, Doug asked if I had eaten anything and I answered that I had not. He asked me what a comfort food was, and I must have answered tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, because I found myself walking the block to what was then the un-Safeway and going through the motions of buying groceries. We returned to my house, Doug fixed the food, and we sat and ate together.
“The ‘Iâ€™m sorry’ wonâ€™t feel like enough. There is a tension in suffering, a stress in its very existence, even if not our own. When something horrible happens to someone we know, for a moment, we realize this terrible thing is possible in our world too, and that’s scary. Itâ€™s the rare friend who is willing to hunker down with you in the mystery of deep sorrowâ€”knowing full well it could be their own.”
I read this today at Scot McKnight’s blog, and when I think of the many faces of grief I encounter, I am reminded that while online words of encouragement are meaningful and good, it is the act of “sitting with” that moves us most from the death of grief into life.
“To remember someone in this way is to be a part of their healing. To respond to a personâ€™s cry of lament, â€˜Remember me!â€™, is to live in solidarity with that person in their struggle and pain; to tell someone that we will not forget them offers hope and reassurance in the midst of loneliness and despair. In pastoral ministry, not only do we remember who we are as Godâ€™s people, we also â€˜re-memberâ€™ one another.”
“You eat. We came over to sit.”