Books about dying, death, and grief surround me in my office. There are additional like-minded books in digital form on my tablet.
Do any of them truly help me understand the grief I’ve experienced in my life, or help those I try to support as they grieve a loved one’s death?
And what about the workshops, seminars, and webinars I’ve attended? Helpful? Not helpful?
The resources I’ve casually thumbed through or read and re-read, and the experts who have shared their wisdom in person or online, have added to my knowledge. And, given my love of books, and that I like to keep growing as a professional, I’ll probably buy the next well-reviewed memoir about grief or register for a webinar touting unique research about hospice care.
I love learning! Books are my friends! Workshops can provide new knowledge!
However . . .
Recently I spent time with someone who has dealt with a terrible tragedy. I won’t reveal what she experienced, and who died in her family, but this person is struggling with an event that is unbearably difficult. You would not want to be her. And if you’ve ever had a similar traumatizing event, then you might begin to fathom how deep emotional wounds can change . . . everything. Or maybe you wouldn’t understand, because tragedies can numb the ability to empathize with others for a long, long time.
This gentle, hurting person and I talked about books.
Like me, he (clever of me to change personal pronouns, eh?) has a personal library filled with books. There are probably lots of recently purchased self-help books and memoirs about loss and grief. Certainly his home shelves contain bestsellers on bereavement by renowned experts. Newly released books filled with chicken-soup-for-the-soul words of comfort and old books that are deemed “classics” are within reach for daily browsing.
“None of them help,” he told me.
“All of them say the same thing,” she told me.
Foolish me, I suggested another book, wondering if he’d heard of it.
“I’m reading that right now,” was her immediate reply.
This person was reading one of my favorite (such a foolish word) books on grieving: a slim work by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled “Lament for a Son.” Written in 1987, it remains relevant.
“How do you like it?” I asked. (What a shallow question.)
The person hesitated. And then provided positive feedback and an appreciation for Wolterstorff’s talent to express powerful feelings in accessible words.
I didn’t have the courage to ask if reading “Lament” had really helped.
None of them help. All of them say the same.
That’s not true! Or is it true?
Grief is a firestorm that everyone, even the strongest, even the experts, confronts with a thimbleful of water. Maybe our faith is deep and wide, but when a child dies, a dagger of a question stabs our hearts: how can a loving God allow this? Maybe our extended family is nearby and supportive and always available with a warm casserole and kind words, but when a beloved mother dies—the one at the center of family life—every bite of food feels like cardboard and the kind words tumble like the last dried leaves from a tree in winter.
We read for answers. There are none.
We listen to an expert for hope. But still feel hopeless when the workshop ends.
In my own small way, I cast out sentences on this webpage. Have my words ever helped anyone who dreads what hospice represents or who is staggered by grief? At the hospice office, I attach a nametag to my shirt with: “Bereavement Support Specialist.” Specialist? Has my specialized/expertized/educatized designation made a difference for those longing for comfort in the worst—the absolute worst—time of their lives?
Maybe you will be a kind reader of these weekly ramblings and reassure me that my words have mattered. Maybe you’ve gotten a bereavement call from me, or you’ve been in a grief support group that I’ve led, and you’ll regale me with how my special expertise has mattered. And if you do, I would humbly receive and appreciate your compliments.
But I think of that lovely, wounded person. None of the books helped, she freely admitted; all the books said the same, he shared honestly. Really? That can’t be right! Some must have helped! Some must have shared distinctive, unique, and helpful viewpoints!
Or they didn’t.
In the little I know, I know how inadequate all responses and resources can be. A friend and mentor’s wife unexpectedly died years ago. She was alive on one fine morning, and then dead before the worst sunset of his life. I wrote him a note. Later he told me it was among the truly helpful “gifts” he’d received. Some friends had ignored him. Some told him her death was part of God’s plan or that God needed her and “brought her home.” Some told him it was her “time to die.” Some told him he’d feel better soon . . . just like they had when their great-grandmother died.
I just told him I didn’t know what to say and that he must hurt like hell. And I told him, though I don’t know this for sure (but believe it with my feeble, inadequate faith), that God must also be weeping. Really, what I tried to tell him was that there was nothing to say other than I wanted him to know I was thinking about him. Was that enough?
I am glad for all the books by the experts. I am glad for easy-access seminars and webinars. I am glad for memoirs where writers expose their scars and regrets and hopes so that the ones who buy the book know they too might survive the worst sunsets.
Everything that truly tries to help those who grieve can help. And it won’t.
I sat with that lovely, hurting person and I am still, at least within, crying because of the loss that was (and is) overwhelming. I wish I had the right words. I wish I were a specialist. I wish . . .
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)