As a writer, choosing the right word is a constant preoccupation. This is at no time more true than when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Especially for an introvert, who has to think through every possible iteration of phrasing before speaking out loud, I’ve found myself many times preferring to say nothing rather than say the wrong thing. Or trying to find the right moment to make a joke so everyone can relieve some tension. Like Clairee does in Steel Magnolias: “Here, hit this! We’ll all sell T-shirts that say, ‘I hit Ouiser Boudreaux!’ ”
But what I really want to say is, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Over and over, like a dummy.
For years, I accepted this muteness (mistaking it for tact) until I read an article by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, where she writes about grieving the loss of her son. (She has an entire book about this, On Loss and Living Onward, which I highly recommend). She talked about going to church in a city (and country) they had moved to the same week her son went into a coma after a drowning accident. The first Sunday after his death, they were at church among strangers who had never known them, or her son. Despite knowing that the family was grieving, no one knew what to say. So they said nothing.
Before reading this account, I’d never realized just how painful it can be to say nothing. That in trying not to offend, or remind people of their grief, we make them feel alone. That, in trying to avoid the subject, or pretend it hadn’t happened, we exacerbate their pain. It had never occurred to me to that not acknowledging someone’s grief could be just as bad as saying, “It will be okay.”
Recently, I read a point of view of someone who lauded the ability of her friends to say, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” because it allowed her to have a unique experience, to be free of expectation, to face her own grief instead of becoming the subject of someone else’s reminiscence. This phrase has almost become the gold standard response among those of us who are careful with words.
In trying to avoid platitudes, like “they’re in a better place,” or “we should be grateful for (fill in the blank),” or “everything happens for a reason,” we substitute it with something that is apologetic, deferential, respectful for the sacred nature of someone else’s refiner’s fire.
But I’ve spent many hours wondering if this is true: Can we really not imagine someone else’s particular grief? Even as we know and feel that it might be different from our own–is it impossible to imagine? I think too often, the idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; because we believe we’ll never completely understand, we don’t go through the work of trying. We go on with our lives, and they suffer alone.
The other side of this equation is our own pain; if someone tries to sympathize by comparing their experience with our own, do we shut people out and say, “You can’t even imagine what it’s like…”? Do we refuse to let people imagine our pain? When we insist that they “can’t,” aren’t we in essence telling them, “don’t”? Are we saying, “stay away from my pain”? I imagine (that word again) it’s simply a case of fear. Being judged or misunderstood in how we’re processing our grief can feel like salt in raw wounds.
I should insert here that I am acutely aware of the individuality of grief–that everyone processes their pain in a unique way, and I fully believe in respecting each person’s path through it. But believing that we are incapable of empathizing because our experiences aren’t identical prevents us from “mourning with those that mourn.”
As followers of Christ, we preach and console ourselves by holding onto the belief that there is one who fully understands us–every pain we have felt, physical or emotional–any pain we can conceive of, he has felt it bodily. We’re told in the Book of Mormon that Christ “will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance” (Alma 7:12-13).
I interpret this to mean that, although he could have understood us through the “Spirit” which “knoweth all things,” he chose to experience “our infirmities . . . according to the flesh,” so that he would “know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” Individually and uniquely, and not hypothetically.
So the question is, how literally do we believe this? Do we believe that his understanding of our pain is limited to his physical experience, or do we believe that his infinite suffering gives him a thorough understanding of our own, even if the literal events of our lives don’t compare?
Consider these examples:
- Christ was never married, never divorced, been cheated on by a spouse–but he was betrayed by his friends. Is it the same?
- Christ never gave birth to a baby, or had a miscarriage, or had a child die–but he suffered through the atonement (the pain of the entire universe), and he is metaphorically speaking, our “father,” and he loses his children to spiritual death all the time. Is it the same?
- Christ never had a chronic illness, or depression, or bi-polar disorder, or anxiety, or any mental instability which made him question his own hold on reality–but he was left alone by his Father and rejected by his society. Is it the same?
It seems blasphemous to say, “No, they’re not the same,” as if we can put limits on God’s suffering, experience, or understanding. But I imagine I’m not the first person to ask myself these questions. I imagine someone with paranoid schizophrenia has had doubts about how God could really understand what he or she is going through.
I would like to assert here that I fully believe that Christ does understand us, not because he may have literally felt every unique pain of every individual who ever existed, but because he has the infinite and perfect capability to imagine them. If he never felt the pain of losing a child who grew inside him, there must be some space, some imaginative leap of empathy which makes it possible for Him to understand and mourn with us–and therefore to provide what we need from Him.
And if this is the case–that even perfect empathy requires some imagination–why do we not allow it in others? Why do we tell people that they “can’t imagine” what we’re going through? And when the situation is reversed, we insist that it’s true? I think those who believe that only God can understand them must have the loneliest of griefs.
I love what Edith Stein writes about this. She was a Jewish phenomenologist in the 30s who later converted to Catholicism and became a nun. (The Nazis sent her to Auschwitz anyway.) She was also later canonized as a saint by the Catholic church. But long before this, as a scholar, she studied the concept of empathy, and wrote this:
While I am living in the other’s joy [or “pain”], I do not feel primordial joy. It does not issue live from my “I.” Neither does it have the character of once having lived like remembered joy. But still much less is it merely fantasized without actual life. [. . .]
Thus empathy is a kind of act of perceiving. [. . .] This is how human beings comprehend the psychic life of their fellows. Also as believers they comprehend the love, the anger, and the precepts of their God in this way; and God can comprehend people’s lives in no other way.
I love this. “God can comprehend people’s lives in no other way.” Imagination, as flawed as it is, is ultimately all we have. We can, and should, “show up,” as Melissa Dalton-Bradford puts it. Sit with them. Do dishes. Listen. But without spending time imagining all the possible facets of their changed world, how can we truly mourn with them?
How do you mourn with your friends? What about acquaintances and strangers? How do you find ways to console people that are tactful and authentic?