Being a Friend to the Mourning

Most people don’t know what to say to the grieving. Most grieving don’t know how to talk about their grief. Mourning that comes out of time, during college-the days supposed to be the best of your life, can lead to profound loneliness.

And, I’m not just talking about the death of a family member or friend, maybe its the family relationship that was unspeakable, or the experience that stole what can never be physically restored, or a home lost due to an international move.

Not many know how to mourn among the old, so where does that leave the college student? Usually speechless. And angry. And searching for something to dull the pain. Surrounded by friends who do care, but may not have logged enough life to know quite how to come alongside their friend. It can be hard to know how to be a friend when you’re needed most. DSC_0062

I’m no grief expert, but I can share what I’ve learned along the road from a college student with few recognized losses in life to now, mid way through life having logged a few. I’ve experienced losses related to life lived overseas. A year and a half ago, my dad passed away of a brain tumor.

Entering back into U.S. college ministry, my heart weighs heavy for the many, many students I meet who are grieving and struggling to find a way through the grief.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when walking alongside a friend through loss…

  • Begin understanding your own losses. Maybe you haven’t lost someone to death, but have you lost a friend or family member to a severed relationship? to a different direction in life? to addiction? Those are losses to grieve and mourning brings compassion for other losses.
  • Log time with your friend. Call them. Text them. Even when you don’t know what to say. Just say “I don’t know what to say”. It’s honest and it may be enough for the moment. Keep calling and texting even when it seems they don’t want to be your friend because they don’t call back. They’re grieving and it can be hard to take simple steps to maintain friendships during grief. Don’t take it personally and keep offering your friendship.
  • Allow space for a range of emotions. Grieving isn’t just crying. It can be laughing over a memory or just doing something normal to remind yourself that life isn’t all about your loss. It’s not all sad. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes. Being a friend who is there means you are along for the ride, with all its ups and downs.
  • Avoid explanations. Most of the time, we really don’t know what God’s purposes are in the timing of loss. When a friend of mine died right after graduation, a nurse rattled off a long list of false statements as we sat stunned out of words from the shocking news. The dead do not become angels. God probably did not take them because they were the prettiest. He does not need more angels in heaven because God does not need. As we sat bereaved in the hospital, my anger grew to overflowing. The best thing she could have given was silence. Statements and explanations make the speaker feel better, they have something to say. If you don’t know what to say, say that, and sit. You may feel inept and weak but that is ok. It’s a demonstration of selfless love. Presence is a profoundly comforting comfort.
  • Educate yourself. Watch movies like P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, or Band of Brothers. Read memoirs written by the grieving. Do a word study in your Bible on mourning. Read slowly and repeatedly through Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died but before he was raised. Listen to Mary and Martha’s responses as though you were there. Notice Jesus’ responses.
  • Pray for your friend and yourself. Most of the time when I pray for my grieving friends now, I pray that they will experience comfort from the Lord.
  • Get help when its needed. If your friend is coping with grief in self-destructive ways, don’t just stand by. If they’re binge drinking, coping oddly well but not willing to talk much with anyone, displaying poor hygiene that is beyond normal, taking drugs, hooking up with others to avoid pain, missing an abnormal number of classes, or unable to sleep well consistently, they need more help walking through their grief. Approach them about talking with a counselor and help them set up and keep the appointment.

Sometimes I’ve felt there should be a class where I can learn how to be compassionate. Alas, I believe God grows a heart of compassion in us as we experience pain and come close to those in pain.

 

 

 

Presence

This past week a host of troubles loomed before us ranging from midnight trips to the emergency room for my son’s breathing problems to hiccups registering kids in their new school and everything in between and on the outside too.DSC_0090

What miraculously never left me in these and moments and others was the settled knowledge that God’s presence in my life never left…not for one second.  I still trembled with fear and shook with sadness but I knew He was in the storm with me.  I’ve not always been that person.

Presence is a powerful thing.  The past few weeks highlighted my need for the presence of the Lord who never leaves me.  What I learned anew was how desperately I also needed the presence of His family who stands with me.

When friends showed up on our doorstep one night, I reveled in their presence.  When another friend stood by us in a special way it moved me to tears.  I needed their presence.

And, there’s just something about being bodily present with the family of God that cannot be explained…something that overpowers the worries of the world in a way nothing else can.

So I stand humbled by the presence of God in the storm this week.  Beyond that I know much more deeply my need for the physical presence of the body of Christ.  I’m sure I have still more to learn about presence too!

I’d love to hear about a time in your life when you realized how much you needed the body of Christ.  Please share below!

The Art Journey

My husband dreams of buying an original piece of art one day so we stray into art galleries on our rare weekends away.  We stroll through discussing what we see.  What we like.  What we don’t.  Picking out that original piece of art gradually changed from a notch on our belt…something to hang on the wall and accomplish, a box to check, into a marriage journey of sorts.

A few years passed before I took my husband seriously.  Buying this original piece is a life dream of his.  I like art and I like original art but I tend to be, how shall I say it?  Cheap.  My husband is frugal and between the two lies a great chasm.  The cost stared me down for years, a barrier to enjoying our art gallery browsing.DSC_0069

At one time, my husband liked the “painter of light” and I most definitely did not.  The ensuing years fleshed out how I felt and forced him to define why he liked what he liked.  Too perfect, too defined, too cliché to me.  Safe, complete, harmonious, calm to him.  I looked at Kincaid in the mall and understood the peace he craves in contrast to the chaos of his upbringing.  I still don’t like Kincaid or art in the mall but I understood why he liked Kincaid.  He began to understand me too.  He began to appreciate the messiness in art that describes so much of life.  The play of colors slashed across a canvas whispered to him and then he understood me just a little more.  Life is messy.

Eventually I embraced our quest for original low-end art.  I accepted my husband’s dream and took it on as my own.  Now I dream the dream as well.  We finally realized with a spark of shock after 14 years of marriage that the pilgrimage to our piece of art is more about our marriage than the art.  Through art we discover each other.  As my love for a style I don’t even know how to name clashes with my husbands mild distaste for same said style, we meet, my husband and I.  We discover each other.  We grow and change and put words to the changes through the media of brush strokes and colors on a canvas.

I feel we never will find our piece of art.  Our search spans like a railroad track that veers closer and closer but never quite meets this side of heaven.  In fact, I almost oppose actually purchasing a piece because I enjoy the journey so much.  Wandering the streets of the world and popping in shops…talking about us through art.

The blank wall remains open filling up with more than the permanence of a painting.

What place does art take in your life?

The Cup

In Chinese, the word for cup and life sound the same so giving a cup means inviting someone in your life for a lifetime.  A cup is a symbol of enduring friendship.

The tradition of gifting cups started in pain for me.  After 3 years of living life side by side my dear friends felt led on a different path.  After 7 years of leaving others I now understood what it feels like when someone leaves.  It feels terrible.  What once filled up areas of life goes and it leaves a painful vacancy along with not much energy to fill it.  I had not come to peace with it yet.  I fought someone…God.

I gave my friends (and myself) the first cup trusting that God was in this and that He had a plan for my future and for theirs even if it meant thousands of kilometers of distance.  A white cup with green leaves covers the outside.  I hoped that our friendship, once they left, would live like the green leaves and continue to grow.DSC_0010

Every year we continued to meet and each year someone brought a cup as a gift or we bought one together to remember the year.  God grew our friendship in a unique way.  The cups became a sacred remembrance like the stones the Israelites laid in the desert to mark something the Lord did for them.  We cried and laughed, shopped and sat on those weekends. I cherished and looked forward to them all year.

Those meetings in the spring in the historic streets of the Far East will ended.  I am the last still living in Asia.  Still more friends left after them and I snatched cups from their give away piles.  Cups fill my cabinet, each one reminding me of a special friend.

Being left with a void after saying goodbye is something I’m thankful for with tears and still a frequent stabbing pain.  A void the Lord fills better than any beverage, movie, book, or ministry I know…but the pain still resides as well.

Living with the void hurts but the filling of the void by the only One who truly fills anything is worth the wait.

Yet again, I wait.

In the House of Mourning

The sweltering heat presses down on us in the hidden cemetery.  I pass by inscriptions of women, children, missionaries, diplomats, and seamen.

I imagine some died from mosquito-borne illnesses as I nervously slap away hundreds of the pests.  My children flee to higher ground to avoid the onslaught.  I and my daughter remain and wander as the clock hastens towards closing time.

DSC_0040Some inscriptions move me to tears.  The small crypt of an infant inscribed with words of surrender even as grief slays the soul.

Others give my heart pause to wonder…was it worth it?  The sailor whose greatest achievement, the one that took his life, was war to open a port of trade to opium.

Most received their burial in the presence of friends or shipmates, not family.  Etched in the side of one stone tomb I read, “The Tomb Erected by a Mournful Friend.”  Who was the mournful friend?  What does mournful friendship look like in this era?

DSC_0062Then, the lengthy inscription of Robert Morrison who translated the Bible into Chinese and created the Chinese dictionary all in the age before computers.  We stand on his shoulders along with hundreds of millions of others who daily benefit from his labors.  I’m sure my contribution pales in comparison.  Am I content to continue even if my labors never amount to such fame?

DSC_0048Better to go to a house of mourning…this theme echoes in my ears during the season of goodbye gatherings that recently ended.  Do they ever end though?  Goodbye parties and cemeteries…my current houses of mourning.

Walking through this cemetery anchors my soul to the crucified life.  Through the tears I manage to glean something of the realities of a life surrendered.

To conquer?  To serve?  To give my life?  To accept loss that comes to my doorstep?  To be the mournful friend?

Plain Old Pain and Sore Pain

At 20 bucks an hour, medicinal back massages are a steal.  Last furlough I vowed to indulge in this overseas luxury more often.  Cross cultural life stresses the body and the mind.  Massage works wonders…if you can stand the pain.

Massage in America surrounds you in an experience of soothing luxury.  Relaxing smells and soft music with a fountain trickling in the background usher one into an experience of stressless comfort.  Not so in Asia.  A successful massage in Asia uses one hour to hit every pressure point and problem area with torturous force.  No music or fountains…just hard work.  It is not for the faint of heart.  If I scream, which I do, I only communicate a job well done, not a request to stop!

Two words describe pain in this language and we learned them from the masseuse.  There are more, but these two strike me with meaning.  Pain and sore pain.  Pain is just what it means…pain.  No purpose.  Negative.  Undesirable.  Bad.

Sore pain…now sore pain is good.   The masseuse explained that sore pain means new blood flowing to the knotted muscle and washing out the toxins.  Sore pain eventually allows the muscle to release the poison and relax resulting in more freedom of motion without limiting pain.

Sore pain is why I get a massage.  Sore pain serves a purpose.  Sore pain yields.  Sore pain is not futile.  Sore pain leads to loose muscles that enable me to enjoy daily life without as much plain old pain.

As in my spiritual life there is pain that leads to more pain and serves no purpose.  That kind of pain makes me act funny as I protect myself.  And, then, there is sore pain.  The word a friend speaks that brings to light a sin issue I need to face.  Or, maybe it is doing the thing I fear will incur disapproval from others.  Pressing these areas brings sore pain.  But, sore pain is worth it.  Sore pain brings new life.  Sore pain gets out the poisons.  Sore pain eventually brings peace and freedom.

Sore pain still hurts.  I scream when the masseuse hits certain pressure points.  I cry and can get angry when someone pushes on a stiff spot.   But the promise of cleaning out the toxins and moving unencumbered by a stiff soul makes me crave it even as I want to scream.

When I visit the masseuse I always try to go with a friend.  We bond as we listen to the masseurs grump about our physical problems and as we hear each other yelp.  Taking a friend along on the journey of sore pain of the soul helps me endure.

Between the screams, and sometimes through them, we laugh a great deal.

What stiff places in your soul need to experience sore pain these days?

Thriving or Blending In

As we struggled to get back to thriving during a relationally dry time a few years ago, I struck out with plough in hand to turn up some ground for new friendships.  International playgroup was the ground and I was going to make some friends.  Mom’s from around the world in various stages of survival or thriving gathered to talk while kids played. So many interesting people!  Surely, a friendship could be borne.

Eventually, mom’s night out came around.  I, of course, went and ended up sitting next to a woman who loved to pepper me with questions about what we did, how we did it, how we got paid, what our plans for the future were and so on.  We’re not exactly forthcoming with all that information for some good reasons so to say I was uncomfortable is an understatement.  She then proceeded to ridicule another family in the city for doing religious work.  She did not know I did the same type of work.  And, now, I did not want her to know.  I really did not want her to know.

I shut down.  Survival became my goal.  Blend in to the group.  Be just another mom living life overseas.  Don’t stick out.  Danger!  It seemed an appropriate time to visit the lady’s room.

One friend who knew our more important work, observed the whole encounter.  She observed my walls go up, my survival instincts kicking in.  Later, as the cab dropped off first one and then another and another person until my friend and I were alone in the cab, she leaned forward and told me clearly she did not hold the views of this other woman.  In fact, she respected what we did.  I breathed.  I’d found a friend.

I realized after a long while and am still reminded now that blending into the group does not lead to survival but slow death.  It seems on the surface the right thing to do.  Friends are lacking, so go make friends…but not at any cost.  Never at the cost of who I am.  That’s not survival and it doesn’t lead to thriving….it’s just the long road to a slow death.  The wrong death.

The life Christ calls me to is so much more than blending in.  In fact, it’s the opposite of blending in.  It’s being willing to stand up knowing life as I know it probably won’t survive.  As I think on it more releasing survival seems to be the first step on the path to thriving.