The Shame of Grief
August 16, 2018 0 comments
The day after I learned my brother Jon’s lifeless body had been found in his bed, I walked into a small “comfort food” restaurant. I don’t like eating alone…well, I don’t like doing much of anything alone…but that day it seemed like the right thing to do.
As I walked into the room I saw two ladies in a booth, hands clasped, and praying. Tears welled. Seeing them praying reminded me that a hearing God was on His throne of grace listening to people talking to Him. Listening to me. My cries and hurts and fears. I knew my eyes were red and I was wearing no makeup and my frumpy t-shirt had snot on it from wiping my nose in the car. But I wanted to thank them for praying in public and letting me watch.
As I approached, they glanced up and I saw concern in their eyes. Before I knew it, I was telling them that watching them pray meant so much because I just found out my little brother had died. They reached to grab my hands and pulled me down next to them. With warmth and tenderness, they expressed their sorrow and asked if they could pray for me. I wept and they cried. We lingered, almost as if we were all marveling at what just happened. I thanked them again and they asked my name and said they would continue to pray for me. Strangers had been vessels of God's care and love for me because I was so desperate I pushed through the awkwardness. I needed them. And as I picked at my sandwich after they left I realized something....
I had just done something for the first time in my 64 years. I love interacting with strangers. I enjoy learning about their lives and have at times found myself putting my arm around a teary young mom in Target or asking to pray for a woman facing cancer in Kohl's or asking a grocery cashier how her doctor's appointment went last week. But I don't ever remember taking my pain to a stranger and letting them care for me.
“What does shame have to do with grief?” you may be understandably asking. Believe me, I would have asked the same question years ago.
Shame is a hard thing to understand because it's often confused with guit. In guilt, something I did makes me feel regretful or embarrased. In shame, something is wrong with me. I'm dirty and messed up. For Christians, shame can sneak into our lives in surprising ways, even when someone dies.
- People remind us “They’re in a better place!” and we feel selfish for thinking how much we’ll miss them.
- We squelch our tears or anger because we should be trusting God through the sorrow rather than giving vent to it. After all, God is in control and we just need to accept that.
- We become very selective in who we open up to because we just can’t bear another well-meaning “You won’t always feel this way” or “Aren’t you so glad your loved one is no longer in pain and suffering?” (as if our tears and angst and pain wishes they would come back and suffer more).
- We push the sadness away, reminding ourselves that others are in pain, too, and we must stop thinking about ourselves.
That’s the way I’ve dealt with grief in the past. My escape from the overwhelming sense of loss, the disorienting questions of “God, why? Why now? Why this?”, and the darkness of facing life without Daddy or Mom or the awfulness of feeling judged and rejected by those I loved was to turn toward the hurting around me. Some turn to sex or drugs or alcohol or entertainment or work, but me finding refuge in helping and caring for others – while not deviant or blantantly sinful – was an equally unsatisfying diversion from connecting with others in my pain. I cried out to God, mostly alone, and kept the focus on others. This kept them from having the joy of caring for me in my heartache.
Shame says, “Something isn’t right about me. I’m not grieving right. I should be able to trust God more through this. I’m being too me-centered and selfish. I just need to rely on God and be a mature Christian. People die (or get divorced or feel judged or etc etc etc) every day, and I’m just not handling this well.”
Certainly, we are all broken and prone to sinning in our grief. When sorrow bleeds into selfish preoccupation with how my life is now going to be affected by the loss at the expense of caring for others, then the time comes for humble reflection and acknowledgement of this wrong. But when His friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept even though his friend was about to be raised from the dead. His approach to Mary and Martha wasn’t to "fix them" but to compassionately comfort them. When grief hits, most godly people don’t mean to correct. They mean to help and comfort! They just don’t realize that the best way to make us feel better is to sometimes say nothing at all, but to allow compassion to ooze out of their very eyes, grab our hand, and offer to pray.
The anecdote to shame in sorrow for me as I mourn the loss of my brother has been to take my grief public. Just as the sexually abused woman or the husband who just learned his wife is committing adultery or the single adult who feels embarrassed over yet another year of unplanned singleness finds hope and healing in talking about their struggles, I’ve found grace in taking my grief to the streets. As I type, I’m actually a little embarrassed that I cried with the deli worker while ordering food platters for a family party after Jon died; shared my sorrow with the gal who stared at me while we pumped gas next to each other; and allowed two ladies to pray for me as I grabbed a napkin to blow my nose in front of them.
Are you grieving today? Is someone you love dead or dying? Are your young adult kids far from God? Are the issues in your marriage something you can’t find the words to share with anyone? Does it feel like “something is wrong” with you because of sins done against you that you just can’t talk about? Please don’t let shame keep your grief deep inside. Find someone to share it with.
Even if it’s a stranger in a restaurant.