Supporting Grieving Parents: Are You a Grief Worker or a Gospel Bringer?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

When it comes to supporting grieving parents, there's a fine line between helping them for their own benefit and using their mourning to magnify your own experience.

Some of us crawl down into the dirty places, where people's feet are always bare and the pools of tears are long and wide. We hide from view while we work and leave the dark places behind when we walk out into the world. We don't share our private messages and sometimes we're shocked when we count the short lives we've witnessed. Our reckoning is shocking because at the end of our work, we let them go, not out of callousness but because we recognize that those stories are not ours to tell, and those babies deserve to be mourned separately from ours. 

Some of us walk into rooms where the grief is as big as a pine box. We reach out our hands, greedily, and say, "I'll take a bite of that!" Because we want to be part of that grief-- to claim it as our own. Because we want to shout about other people's sadness and own it for ourselves. 

In this post-loss world, we all want to make our children's lives more meaningful, and inevitably, the space we occupy while doing this often belongs to others. We make connections over the internet and the stories all seem to blend together into one, long narrative of mourning. 

Some of us call ourselves "grief workers" or talk about "supporting angel moms", but when people call themselves Christians and grief workers in the same breath they're altering the narrative, ever so slightly, in a negative way -- if they're Christians they can't be grief workers, because grief work flies in the face of rebirth: it flies in the face of the promises of the resurrection. It flies in the face of Christ crucified, who told us to leave the dead to bury the dead, and follow Him into life. These grief workers seek out sadness, promising to help parents work through their experience, but sometimes what they do is encourage them to remain in a state of perpetual mourning. Because they want to sell t-shirts and car stickers and keep people in captivity -- their captivity -- for as long as possible. In seeking out sadness, they move from family to family, helping those who've lost children to turn their babies into idols, effectively directing them away from what's real -- the conquering of death via the crucifixion. 

{Now I want to be clear: I am not talking about doulas and other birth workers who support parents in their immediate time of need, but those who encourage an extensive mourning process or who promote the concept of never-ending grief.}

Why do I care? What business is it of mine?

Because when I first began this writing adventure it was just a place for me to record my thoughts about my daughter. It was private and sentimental. 

Then, after a while I believed it could be something bigger. So I began to follow the pattern of others, writing about sunsets and over-using the word "momma" when addressing my tiny "audience". I tried to write what other people were writing and I  believed I should be cautious about things like faith and abortion and all of what was happening to me -- all of what was the foundation of my grief experience -- because I may offend someone. This resulted in a lot of terrible writing and a lot of bottled up anger. I wasn't being fed by others, and I certainly wasn't feeding anyone else.

Now I am like a lion, jaws wide open, devouring the lie so many loss families have been fed, the lie which says perpetual sadness is the norm when you've lost your child. The lie which teaches that grief is the price you pay for love. 

Because grief isn't the price you pay for love. 

Love doesn't come with a price. It's freely given and holds no one hostage to despair.  

Joy is the gift you receive for love. You just need the right lens through which to view the picture.

Now, I'm not trying to say we should attempt to stop up the natural sadness which naturally  comes with loss. Just like anyone else who's lost a baby, I understand grief takes time, no one can dictate to another how long their grief process should take, and no one can tell someone how they're grieving is wrong. The Bible says we are given "a time to mourn". Mourning is an appropriate response to loss. 

Even Jesus wept.

Weep for days, months even.

Weep in the shower, and on the playground, and in the baby aisle at Target.

But remember- the Bible also says there is "a time to rejoice". 

At the end of our mourning, we should be looking towards rejoicing. More importantly, those who are holding our hands through our experience should be gently guiding us to a place of hope, not encouraging us to dwell in our despondency.

Grief is about hopelessness, and hopelessness is what drives despair.

Christianity isn't about hopelessness, it's about rejoicing in the risen Savior. 

The One who saves.

This past Sunday morning in church, we sang the following stanza in a hymn:

"Jesus has come as the mighty Redeemer......Jesus breaks down all the walls of death's fortress, brings forth the pris'ners triumphant unharmed."

(LSB 533)

As Christians, this is what needs to be shared, when a child (or anyone else) dies. Jesus breaks down all the walls of death's fortress. He brings forth the prisoners, triumphant and unharmed. There is no sorrow in that message. 

How can we not want to share this?

We are sojourners here, and the Great Commission should always be our first priority. Even when dealing with the emotionally fragile. 

Especially when dealing with the emotionally fragile.

Always when dealing with the emotionally fragile.

Often, I'll see posts and "listicles" with rules about how to help grieving families. I've even written them. Inevitably one of the rules is not to bring up the subject of God. But for the Christian, this is an impossibility. We are called to remember God in all we do. 

Because as much as we may believe we are aiding someone when they mourn, if we're doing it without mention of the resurrection..... then we aren't helping at all. If we're looking at a listicle which tells us to refrain from mentioning "the God who sees me", we're looking at a list which tells us to avoid the God to whom Rachel cried out, the God who gave Hannah a son in her old age. When we choose to be guided by secular suggestions, we are denying the work of the ultimate grief worker- the one who conquered death. The Man of Sorrows, He who carried our grief all the way to the cross and then crushed it under His heal. 

We were not created to die. 

We were not created to die.

We were created to live, forever. 

And in this post-Fall world, this world where we don't live forever, when the days are so difficult to get through and the nights are so lonely, we need to remember that. We've gotten so caught up with focusing on feelings that we believe the Truth is dangerous for a grieving family to hear. We believe we need to meet people where they are, but where they are is sitting at the Enemy's table. They are feasting on hopelessness, and by neglecting to share the good news of Jesus resurrection, we are holding the spoon up to their lips.

There was a time when I didn't believe this. I recall being in a bible study at church, and heatedly arguing with other parishioners about this -- telling them bereaved families didn't need the Bible shoved down their throats at their darkest moments. Contemplative thinking during bereavement was too much, I said. The bereaved just want someone to listen to their sadness. I still hold that we need someone to listen to our sadness, but we also need someone to remind us that this sadness, this life, is temporary for all of us, not just those who die too young. We need someone to bring us the good news: death has been conquered, and we will live forever, as we were originally created to. 

My mistake came from a place of ignorance: There's an idea out there that the gospel can't be shared in a kind and loving way, and at the time, I was mistaken in agreeing with this idea. Now, I understand more. The gospel can be shared in tenderness, and without brow-beating. The gospel, shared this way, is what people need. It's the tender gospel of Jesus, the lover of children and sinners. The Jesus who wept over his dead friend. The Jesus who felt all of our human griefs and all of our human sorrows, and all of the weight of our sins, and still chose to mourn everything along side us. If you think this Jesus is too offensive to share with a grieving parent, if He comes off as too strong, or cold and hard, then you're not seeing Jesus. Because this Jesus is a Redeemer. He makes all things new, even the smallest most broken baby. He is what we need to know about, when we've lost so very much. He is what we need to know about, from day one. 

I've gone on much too long on this subject, but I'll end it with this exhortation: 

We were called to be gospel bearers, not grief workers.

We are called to be the salt and the light. We are called not to rage against the inevitable end of this existence, but to look for the coming of the next.

We have a choice, as Christians, to be grief workers or gospel bearers- 

Because these two callings are in direct opposition to one another, and we can't be both. 

Salt and light, or grief and sorrow-

Which one will you choose?

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