I read a lot of lighthearted fiction, mostly on the treadmill. But from time to time, the pile of half-read books on my nightstand includes memoirs dealing with death and grief.
Randy doesn’t understand why I’m drawn to such heavy topics. He’d much rather read real-life adventure sagas starring Navy Seals, Army Rangers or wilderness explorers. You know—your garden-variety survival stories.
If you think about it, however, the books I’m drawn to are survival stories, too. Mostly written by loved ones left behind, they deal with the very real and excruciating aspects of what life looks like in the aftermath of profound loss.
I’m not sure why I embrace such books. Maybe it’s because, for the longest time, I was kind of oblivious to pain like this, and now I’m not. Or maybe I just didn’t know anyone who was hurting in such ways, and now I do.
I want to help, somehow, but before I can even attempt to try, I want to understand. So I pick up books like And Life Comes Back by Tricia Lott Williford, or A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, or The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts.
And I read—sometimes very slowly, always with a lump in my throat.
Their stories are all different, but one thing these authors usually get around to sooner or later is the clumsy and insensitive things people say when they are trying to extend a comforting hand.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t need to look very far to find examples of this in our own circles. A friend who was battling cancer once told me that the way people responded to her often was influenced by their fear that what was happening to her would happen to them.
“They say things, sometimes the wrong things, because they want you to make them feel better,” she said.
I hope this is not true for me, though I understand what she meant. But I also know this: whatever the motivation behind our words, when we haven’t been there, it’s hard to know what to say.
So we choke out things like, “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling,” and hope that helps somehow.
The fact is, the person in the midst of loss knows this. She knows we’ve not been there, and she doesn’t expect us to understand completely. What she probably wants, more than anything, is our presence.
But what if we could imagine what she was experiencing? What if, instead of shuddering at the thought of her pain, we actually tried to put ourselves in her shoes?
This is scary, I know. It creates big lumps in our throats. It makes our stomach hurt. It might even make us shed a tear or two.
Nobody wants to think about the unthinkable happening to them. We just don’t. But what if we pushed past the fears in our hearts and purposefully went there—for someone else?
Imagine what it would be like if you were the one to receive the knock at the front door, if you were the one spending hours by the beside in the pediatric cancer ward, if you were the one with the wandering spouse, if you were the one on the receiving end of the life-altering diagnosis.
Imagine the shock, the pain, the ache, the loneliness.
The point isn’t to get caught up in some horrible daydream or gut-wrenching game of what-if. Instead, just for a moment, simply think of what your friend is facing and imagine how you would feel if it happened to you.
Now you have an infinitesimal taste of what she’s going through. You CAN imagine it, because you HAVE imagined it.
You don’t have to tell her, of course. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But what you can do, now, is care for her more tenderly. If you’ve truly tried to put yourself in her shoes, you can’t help but walk differently from here on out.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I used to think that I had to have a reassuring answer for every pain, a bit of wisdom for every problem.
I don’t think this way anymore. In fact, if I’ve learned anything in the past few years—both as a giver and a receiver of encouragement—it’s that tears in our eyes are almost always more comforting than words from our lips.
And if we have to use our imaginations to help us get there, maybe we should do it.
P.S. Linking up this week with Kelly Balarie at Purposeful Faith, Jennifer Dukes Lee at #TellHisStory, Holley Gerth at Coffee for Your Heart, Lyli Dunbar at #ThoughtProvoking Thursday, Suzie Eller at #LiveFreeThursday, Missional Women and Grace & Truth.