Outside the Grief Bubble

As I walked the aisles of the grocery store yesterday, trying to restock our pitiful pantry, I couldn’t hold back the stray tears that kept sneaking out. Here and there, with no apparent triggers, I would suddenly need to cry and, because people just don’t *do* that in Wal-Mart, I would quickly turn away from other shoppers and wipe my eyes.

This morning, as I watched my daughter bound onto the playground, shouting greetings to her friends, I grabbed her blanket from the back seat. I pulled it into my lap and found a strange comfort in its softness. I felt silly – a grown woman driving down the road snuggling a child’s security blanket – but it was what I needed. It was the first time I’d been alone since the funeral, and while my heart was desperate for some quiet reflection, I simultaneously couldn’t bear the quiet normalcy of the morning.

My Grandpa passed away last week. For several days after his passing, my family and I huddled together in our grief. At different times, everyone made their way from their own homes to my Granny’s house on Valleybrook Road, where we crowded the yard with our cars and her kitchen with our hugs. We sat and talked, sometimes about Grandpa and sometimes about things that had no bearing on the reason for our gathering there. We laughed as we remembered him, and cried with the realization that he was gone. We held each other up, naturally breaking at different times to stagger our moments of weakness. The waves of grief ebbed and flowed, and spontaneous weeping required no explanation. Within that space, we had more in common with each other than with anyone from outside. We – and our wounded hearts – were safe there.

But then we had to go home. We couldn’t stay there in that safe place. Life, with its jobs and classes and mountains of laundry and empty pantries, called us back. We had to go back to our own lives, re-entering the world that had always been there but that we had been able to safely avoid for awhile.

The re-entry process was not an easy one. Like a world traveler who must quickly acclimate to different cultures, I found myself going through the motions in order to navigate my day. I had to do what I had to do, and there was little time for – or understanding of – weepy spells in the middle of the afternoon.

Worst of all, the inhabitants of this real world didn’t seem to know the devastating loss they were suffering. My Grandpa was gone – GONE – and no one seemed to notice or care. My Grandpa, y’all. One of the best men I’ve ever known. One of the strongest, most noble, most unshakable people God ever created. One of God’s greatest warriors and a true modern-day hero. He was gone, but the world kept right on going.

This is not to say sympathy wasn’t expressed and people were not loving. It was, many times, and they were. But what I ultimately had to grasp was that I – and I alone – felt what I was feeling. Over the past few days I have learned a lot about how I handle the grieving process. I have learned more about God than I knew before – about His faithfulness to those who are hurting and how He draws near to those who are brokenhearted. As much as anything, though, my experience outside the “grief bubble,” as I call it, has also taught me about how I navigate life around other people who may be experiencing grief of their own.

Honestly, my normal approach is to avoid them. I don’t know what to say and I don’t know how to handle it, so my standard is to cast sympathetic glances their way, or send compassionate (and even prayerful) messages on Facebook…but not really do anything about it. The Bible, though, says that is the wrong way to go about it. Jesus Himself modeled a very different approach:

When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them. They told him, “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus wept. (John 11:32-35 NLT, emphasis mine)

Jesus Himself was known for His compassion on those who hurt. He saw them, yes, and He felt compassion…but He took that compassion to another level when He personally entered into the pain of His loved ones, weeping with them and feeling their pain as His own.

Friends, people like me are all around us on any given day. Any time we head into the grocery store or the gas station or post office or our children’s schools, we are crossing paths with the brokenhearted. There are countless people with whom we will lock eyes who are suffering a degree of pain we know nothing about. Any of the other shoppers in the cereal aisle may be moments from tears. Any of the other moms in the car line could be walking through their own devastation. Any of the other customers in line at the post office could be waiting on a miracle to end their heartache.

And we…followers of Christ…are unaware. What do we need to do differently?

First, we need to live with our eyes open. We need to walk through our errands and to-do lists with an awareness of hurts and heartaches around us. When the frazzled young mom in front of us in the checkout line has a weeping child and three items without price tags and a cart full of clearance items that have to be hand entered, bear in mind that she might be buying clearance items because her husband is out of work and they are on a fixed income. When the cashier herself is distracted and seems rude, consider that she might be working this shift and missing the memorial service of someone she loves, or this might be the second of three jobs she’ll go to today, or she might be in training and desperate to get things right so she can keep this job.

We never know everything that is going on. And we never know what kind of grief someone may be suffering.

Second, we need to live with our hearts open. Extend compassion. Spread light. Embrace the heartbroken and let them know that even if you never see them again, you see them now. You are here now. And you care.

Third, we need to live with our lives open. Jesus was never content to stand on the outside of someone’s “grief bubble,” watching from a safe and comfortable distance while they worked out whatever it was they were dealing with. No, Jesus entered into the pain. Jesus stepped into the grief bubble, making people’s heartache HIS heartache. Where there was pain, there was Jesus. And yes, this is the most difficult of the three action steps. It’s easy to consider possibilities as to what might be going on with someone, and it’s even relatively easy to smile and speak a kind word in passing. But entering into someone’s grief – stepping into their pain – requires a selflessness that, honestly, we don’t usually have. But when someone we love is hurting, we ought to hurt, too. It’s mandated in Scripture. It’s modeled in the life of Christ.

Friends, I always walk through any difficult season believing that God will do a good work through it. I know He changes me and molds me through those times, and I think this insight is at least part of what God wants to do in me through this time of grief and sadness.

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