Why Dispensing Dogma Doesn’t Help Another’s Grief

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(These photos I took in Paris while celebrating the 850 yrs. anniversary of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, like my faith, like yours, should be a sanctuary in this world of pain.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the same religion that can be at the very heart of the greatest peace and sweetest solidarity during one’s journey with grief can also be at the root of some significant pain and even alienation.

My experience in this regard is not unique.  In researching and hearing firsthand the stories of the bereaved, I’ve come upon the same phenomenon time and time again.  For many grief-stricken, additional and sometimes permanent injury results when the co-mourner, instead of consoling the sorrowing person, counsels her by dispensing religious clichés or platitudes or authoritatively delivering personal opinion disguised as doctrine. This means figuratively standing at a pulpit and preaching down to the person curled up on the ground in pain.

Sadly, the story is as old as the Bible.

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You know about Job. He’s what we’d call today a total rock.  He’s been a missionary, he’s held bumper-to-bumper leadership positions in his church community, he could have been a minister, a pastor, a priest, a seminary teacher, a bishop, any member of your local or regional clergy. “Stalwart” begins to describe Job. But the Bible goes even further: Job is “perfect.”

He’s also doing quite well: the career, the property, the house, the big family. Which could easily make Job the object of envy for small minds looking on. Except that Job’s good. Good and generous with his time and means, kind and charitable in word and action. We read that he’s genuinely humble and doesn’t consider himself invulnerable; he’s always checking his back, harboring an inward fear that he (or his children) might do something to offend God, something to displease Divinity, something to shatter the magic.

And you know what happens next. Shatter.  This total rock of faith and paragon of life-long devotion to God experiences cataclysmic tragedy.

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Make that tragedies.  Cataclysm after cataclysm, tragedy after tragedy.  Out of the clear powder blue he loses his home, his property, his career, his employees, every possible investment and any hope of a pension plan.  Materially, this man is more than leveled; he’s pulverized.

Then he loses his children, every last one of them, in one freak stroke of fate. And he contracts a gruesome illness, so that beyond losing the flesh of his flesh, he loses his very own flesh. Which drives his wife to telling him to give up on God. That would be right before she gives up on Job. Away we see her drive, away over the knoll, away with her bags in the trunk, all this meaningless misery a smudge of dust in her rearview.

The man, our rock, responds as rocks do. He falls to the earth. And there, even with his rent mantle spread in the dirt and his shaved head beating the gravel, his well-trained heart responds righteously: He worships God. He blesses the name of the Lord, doesn’t blame Him foolishly, holds fast to his integrity, and swears through the mouthful of mud he sucks through in his rotting teeth that he will trust in His God forever.

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Enter Job’s three good friends.

Here is where we should all take copious notes. Why? Because more of us will find ourselves in the role of Job’s friends than we will Job’s. More of us will be called to look into the face of another’s tragedy than will face tragedy of our own. But one thing is certain: All of us will find ourselves at one time or another – or many times – taking part in this scenario.  We are destined and we are covenanted to mourn with those that mourn.

So let’s pay attention to this story together.

What happens?

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After fulfilling their Jewish duty by coming and sitting Shiva’s requisite seven days of solidarity in silence, Job’s friends watch in astonishment as their friend  – good, rock-solid Job – erupts, his anguish roiling and gushing over the page.

Job, like many who are mourning, is feverishly reconstructing his universe.  He’s volatile. His pleading and confusion are not pretty or predictable.  He’s prickly in some verses, maybe even frightening in others, and surely foreign to his friends. And he’s erupting with questions only God can answer.

Here is where Job’s friends make their fatal move.  They stand right up (they remove themselves from solidarity with Job, who is figuratively and literally broken and splayed on the ground), and they begin preaching. They have all the answers, typical of those who have not quite yet understood the questions.

You can picture them: Arms folded across chests or fingering their earlocks, scratching their beards, circling dust-encrusted Job, raising one brow, sizing him up, talking.  Can they talk.  Bless their Mesopotamian hearts, but their talk is not inquisitive; it is inquisitorial.  The more they talk the less they seem to care about Job’s pain, and they don’t seem to grasp God’s purposes with him, although they speak as if they do.  The more they do this, the more injury they inflict on their already-injured friend.

At first, they imply that Job probably had it coming to him anyway.  Next, they reason that Job would not be feeling so torn up if he’d had more faith – like themselves, no doubt.  Then they sniff around for Job’s sins and his children’s sins, which they assume must be multiple, given how severely God is punishing him.  Not only stripped to the bone with tragedy, Job’s faith and his rightness with God are doubted by friends, friends who fail him spectacularly.

As anyone wrestling with bone-liquefying pain will attest to, it is not comforting to be preached to, nor to have one’s faith questioned by spectators.  Come to think of it, it’s no fun to have wide-eyed spectators when wet-eyed comforters are what you need. No wonder Job blurts out, “miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:1-2)

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While his friends do little to comfort Job, we can be thankful for them. Because in them we have an excellent template for how not to comfort those in need.

The following list of clichés, platitudes and trite phrases is culled from the experience from many aggrieved from my own circle of friends or from the research from authors noted at the foot of the list.

You might wonder, as some have, what’s wrong with some of these statements.  Aren’t some of them at least partially true?  

Yes, some of them might be true and might align with your values.  But the nature of clichés and platitudes is that whether they are entirely or partially true or not true at all, they are overly simplistic and when dispensed too easily, show no hint of co-mourning.  What’s worse, in the case of some statements in this list, the speaker assumes to understand the will of God in another’s life.  What is critical to remember is that the bereaved must come to this sacred understanding on her own, and doesn’t need someone who has no experience in the matter to sum up her grief or God’s will for her. Any attempt to do such will alienate the grief-stricken from friends and maybe, in the worst case, from her faith.

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It’s God’s will

God took him (or her)

God needed your son (your spouse, your brother, your father) more than you did

Don’t cry. You’ll see him again

He lived a good life. He was ready to go

He has just begun his mission a little early

God gave you this trial to make you stronger

You need to be strong. Don’t cry

If you’d had enough faith, she’d have survived (been healed)

She is much better off in heaven. She will be happier there

Because your child took his own life, you will never be together in the eternities

Count your blessings. Things could be worse

Your loved one is freed from this terrible world

You have an angel in heaven

God needed another angel

God doesn’t give us more than we can bear

Keep the faith

Rejoice in all things, including this

There are fates worse than death

She’s gone on and busy in heaven. Don’t distract her with your sorrow

God has selected you for this elite trial

—See Ashton, Jesus Wept, 126–27, 234

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

(Several of the following quotes appear in my book, On Loss and Living Onward, available through Amazon and other online or conventional retail book sellers.)

Nothing is more barren, to one in agony, than pat answers which seem the unfeeling evasions of a distant spectator who “never felt a wound.”

—Truman Madsen, Eternal Man, 55

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In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, as well as members of the church, who seemed very uncomfortable with my grief and sadness.  Looking back, I’m quite certain it was an awful experience for them to be around me or my wife. It seemed to us they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. . .They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for [our son’s] death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”.. .I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on—out of my presence.  The people who said these things were never people who had lost children.  Those who had lost a child knew better.

–Minister and bereaved father Dennis Apple, Life After The Death of my Son, p 122-123

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Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet
I’ll never be over it.
Please, don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
She isn’t with me.
Please, don’t say at least she isn’t suffering.
I haven’t come to terms with why she had to suffer at all.
Please, don’t tell me you know how I feel
Unless you have lost a child.
Please, don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please, don’t tell me at least you had her for so many years.
What year would you choose for your child to die?
Please, don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please, just tell me you are sorry.
Please, just say you remember my child, if you do.
Please, just let me talk about my child.
Please, mention my child’s name.
Please, just let me cry.

–”Rita Moran: Please, don’t ask me if I’m over it yet,” Consolatio online

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true…

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 231

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The posture of grief is on your knees.  Sooner or later, each of us finds himself playing one of the roles in the story of Job, whether a victim of tragedy, as a member of the family, or as a friend-comforter. The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues.

—Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 157

. . . Immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58; William, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

Attempting to console those who have lost loved ones . . . by saying it will be better in the next life tends to minimize their immediate pain: “It’s like you’re on a desert island and you are dying of thirst, and someone says, “Yes, you can have a drink, but not for thirty years!”

—Ashton, Jesus Wept, 131

Many bereaved parents do find solace in their faith, but it is also normal for parents to experience a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs. They may find it hard to pray or too painful to attend church. As [one reverend] said, “I tell religious leaders that all of their inactive members are missing because of a loss of some kind.”. . . Sometimes parents don’t return to church because of comments made to them about their child’s death. . . .

Parents are often surprised by comments from others who presume to know what part God played in their child’s death. Responding to such comments can be too painful and parents may choose not to attend church, at least for a while.

—Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 132

There is already enough theological difficulty for those who believe that their activity in the church should somehow protect them from tragedy and sorrow.  Our understanding of the Atonement is hardly a shield against sorrow; rather, it is a rich source of strength to deal productively with the disappointments and heartbreaks that form the deliberate fabric of mortal life.  The gospel was given us to heal our pain, not to prevent it.

–Elder Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart

 

For God to foresee is not to cause or even to desire a particular occurrence–but it is to take that occurrence into account beforehand, so that divine reckoning folds it into the unfolding purposes of God. . .God has foreseen what we will do and has taken our decision into account (in composite with all others), so that his purposes are not frustrated.

–Neal A. Maxwell in “All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience” 8, 12

My heart goes out to each individual who bears the burden of mourning.  I share my feelings of empathy and sympathy.  The separation imposed by the departure of a loved one evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind.  The hurt is real.  Only the intensity varies.  Even though we understand the doctrine—even though we dearly love God had His eternal plan—mourning remains.  It is not only normal; it is a healthy reaction.  Mourning is one of the purest expressions of deep love.  It is a perfectly natural response—in complete accord with divine commanded: “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.” (D&C 42:45). . .Mourning is neither a sign of weakness nor is it to be avoided.  It, too, is an important part of God’s great plan of happiness. . . Mourning is the lubricant of love at the gateway.

-Elder Russel M Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death p. 22, 33

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It was the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My only consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

—William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 57

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