Helping a Hurting Friend: Grief
Rev. Matt Sturtevant and Jesse Heilman, Music Therapist – Board Certified
2 Samuel 18:31–19:4
(Video includes entire worship service. Bulletin)
Psychologists will tell us that there is grief, and then there is a thing called complicated grief. Grief happens anytime we lose a person or a thing that we love. Complicated grief happens when we experience multiple losses at the same time, or when there is an inability to grieve in healthy ways.
Let me give an example. In today’s passage, we heard one of the most heart-wrenching and emotional examples of grief in all the Bible. The king has lost his son, Absalom. People who have had this experience tell me that it is one of the hardest moments of their lives. We know we are likely going to lose our parents, but no one really expects to lose a child. David’s cries of pain and agony demonstrate what happens when someone grieves.
But what you may not know is how David’s son Absalom died. The short version is that he was killed on the battlefield, by one of David’s own soldiers, after being told by David to spare his son, in spite of the fact that Absalom had attempted to throw his father off the throne by military coup, because of his resentment that his father didn’t take his side, after he killed his half-brother, for raping his full sister, David’s daughter.
That is complicated grief.
David’s angst over the loss of his son is really the loss of all of these things. And at the bottom of them all, its about his grief over the loss of innocence of his son, that David himself had a part in, after a lifetime of teaching his son through his own actions the ways of treachery, murder, political manipulation, and violence. David mourns his son, and laments the fact that his death is in part his own fault for the ways that he treated him his whole life. That is but one example of complicated grief, and it shows us how complex and painful the experience can be.
We have seen complicated grief again over the last three months, have we not? Graduation is hard enough, grieving the loss of an institution and friends…imagine having to do it over Zoom. Losing a loved one is hard enough…imagine having to do it without being able to physically say goodbye, in the hospital or at a funeral service. Losing a job is a hard thing to grieve…imagine losing it without knowing if there is another job on the horizon for months, if not years.
Today, I want to talk together about grief. We begin a series this week titled “Helping a Hurting Friend.” As you may have read, the kernel of this series is something that I saw Joe Kutter preach when I was in Topeka. He preached a series that meant to inform and inspire the congregation to be sensitive and helpful in the lives of those suffering from various mental health challenges. In the church, we know more what to do when someone has a physical challenge—surgery, even cancer—than if their challenge is mental or emotional. Joe, and now we, attempt to ask how we can be the good neighbor that God calls us to be for those who suffer in these ways: anxiety, depression, unhealthy relationships, addiction, and grief.
Like Joe, I have invited members from our own pews to share their wealth of knowledge on mental health and coping strategies. Today, we invite Jesse Heilman to share a word about grief, and how we can help a hurting friend.
MS: Jesse, let’s begin with your background. Tell us about your professional experience and your experience with grief…
JH: I am a board-certified music therapist and I have primarily worked in hospice throughout my career. I work for Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care with our patient care and grief support teams. I facilitate sessions with hospice patients and often their families, see children for pre-death grief support therapy, and provide therapy at our two grief camps for children and families. I primarily use music therapy intervention for grief support and processing but also provide verbal counseling with families and caregivers who are experiencing grief or anticipatory grief of the death of a loved one.
Personally, I have experienced grief in my own life beginning when I was young following the death of my great-grandparents whom I was close with, two classmates in high school, my high school counselor, my granddad, and most recently my grandma. I am also navigating grief related to my own struggle with infertility and grieve the loss of patients whom I work with everyday. My personal experience with grief is that it is something that doesn’t go away, it changes. There are many metaphors we use to describe grief experience—like an object changing shape moving from something that overwhelms you and is bigger than you, to something smaller that you can hold—or grief presenting as a big ball inside a box that bounces around and each time the ball hits the side of the box it is a overwhelming expression of grief, but over time the ball gets smaller and slower and therefore, hits the side of the box less. As Pastor Matt mentioned, we are all grieving in different ways in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic: grief can be found in countless losses, like loss of community, loss of relationship, loss of a job, and loss of a dream or goal. Grief is everywhere; it is real and it is valid. Everyone grieves differently—there is no one right way.
MS: Thank you. Now, would you let us know what we can look for when we see a church member who we think might be grieving?
JH: Most people won’t be walking around telling everyone they know that they are grieving, but often, you might be aware of circumstances contributing to grief. The truth is that there are more people than we realize who are grieving; complicated grief, anticipatory grief, grief that just began, or grief that has been a part of someone’s life for many years. It’s often easier to realize the magnitude of grief around us when we are going through it ourselves.
When there isn’t an obvious reason for grief, like knowing someone had a death in their family, we can look for changes in personality, avoidance of emotion, or inability to express or experience joy. Often unprocessed grief can show up as other emotions, like anger, or manifest in physical symptoms, such as fatigue, stomachaches, headaches, and sensitivity to sights/sounds that are reminders of the loss. Symptoms of grief can vary widely depending on the type of loss and can even contradict each other; for example, bouncing from relief to loneliness; from emptiness to gratitude.
What many people experience, and it’s something that’s not easy to identify in ourselves and others, is anticipatory grief. When I work with families of hospice patients, many have difficulty expressing anticipatory grief, although it is a completely valid response to an anticipated loss or fear of the unknown, like the loss we have experienced and are yet to experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Anticipatory grief can show up when someone is planning an upcoming move and grieving the loss of their current community, or when someone is hoping for something and grieving the potential loss of never achieving a goal. While we often associate “regular grief” with physical loss of a person, there are several different types of grief compounded by several types of loss. While someone doesn’t often directly share that they are grieving, it might look like saying,“I’m stressed, I’m overwhelmed, I’m anxious, or I’m scared.” Sometimes recognizing these emotions in a friend can help us to help them identify grief that may be present in a situation too.
MS: One last question. What might we do if we see a church member hurting in this way? How can we help a hurting friend?
JH: In her article, “When Someone You Love Is Grieving: How to Really Help,” Angie Schultz writes: “Grief has a way of unsettling everyone in the proximity. It stirs up our own unhealed parts. Is it any wonder that we have the instinct to smooth over the other person’s emotions, to take everything back to normal, before it has the chance to stir up something inside us?”
The reality is that after a loss, we don’t go back to “normal.” Normal no longer exists and when someone is grieving, they need their friends and family more than ever. More than anything, being present for a grieving friend or family member can make a world of difference in how they work through their loss.
The stages of grief that we often hear about from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are things that we sometimes experience during grief, but what most people do not know is that Kubler-Ross developed this model to describe the experiences of patients going through the grief of a terminal illness diagnosis and their own death—they may not be so helpful for someone grieving something or someone else. When we go through grief, we might bounce between all these stages in a day, or stay in one stage for months—there is no perfect recipe for grief and some people may never experience all the stages. It is more accurate to pay attention to the symptoms of grief and process those emotions, rather than to necessarily recognize the stages. Grief is messy, unpredictable, and unavoidable. The most important thing we can do to help a friend who is grieving is to be present and aware of what the other person needs according to their own grieving.
Don’t say nothing—although it may feel easier to say nothing, when you’re on the other side, it hurts to have the pain of grief and have those around you look the other way. Acknowledge the pain and say something. It’s affirming to hear others say the name of their loved one, or validate whatever it is that is being grieved. Be able, when some experiences a loss, to be the person in someone’s life who isn’t afraid to talk about it. Saying something can be better than saying nothing at all, because grief is incredibly isolating when it feels like no one is paying attention. Sometimes it can be better in this situation to assume you already know the answer to “How are you?”—because chances are, you do. Instead, offer a word of empathy, to show you care and show your presence during their grief.
Unhelpful words look like:
“Time heals all wounds.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“You should be over this by now.”
“It was their time.”
Instead try helpful words like:
“I’ve been thinking of you.”
“I love you.”
“I don’t know what to say but know that I care and I’m here with you in this.”
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
If your friend is willing and ready to talk, listen and encourage them to share memories of the person, express their hopes of a lost event or dream, or simply to express whatever they might be feeling. Offer your own memories if you knew the person they lost. This can be extremely difficult for many and although some may avoid it, sharing memories of a lost person or talking about a loss can help a person to grieve in a healthy way. This helps a friend honor and find meaning in their loss through connection and active listening.
When you offer presence to someone who is grieving, the difficulty is accepting the discomfort of your own emotions. Accept the helplessness of being unable to fix someone’s grief. In order to help someone grieving, you must acknowledge your own vulnerabilities too—but remember that the grief belongs to the griever. Bearing witness to someone’s grief and pain can be difficult, but it can also be a great privilege. Some of us want to fix something, some want to offer tangible items, some want to provide a service. While all of these can be helpful, the most important thing to offer someone who is grieving is permission and validation to feel whatever they are feeling. To be with them and simply witness whatever they are experiencing in the moment, meeting them where they are in their grief.
MS: Thank you, Jesse, for taking the time today, and for all that you do for those who are grieving.
Jesse’s words bring us back to the story of David and Absalom. Where is God in the story, you might ask. I would offer that while God does not show up with a literal voice, God demonstrates incarnational “with-us-ness” in this story. We find two options for how to respond to those who grieve…
The first is Joab. Joab is David’s military commander. Immediately after the passage I read, Joab is madder than a hornet. After all, he and David’s soldiers have just risked their lives to protect his right to the throne. For David to publicly grieve in this way is embarrassing, and he runs the risk of losing the loyalty of his troops. So, he tells the king, “stop it. Don’t grieve. Just get over it.” More or less, he suggests that David’s grief makes his (Joab’s) life harder. So he should stop. While it is actually pretty good political advice for a king, it is disastrous for a grieving father. One way that complicated grief shows up is when we cut short the grieving process, because it is considered inappropriate or embarrassing. Don’t be a Joab.
Of course, you might say that you would never offer such advice to a hurting friend, but don’t be so sure. Oftentimes, when we see someone grieving, it hurts us, and so we want to make that hurt go away. We offer sympathy, but it is mainly to make ourselves feel better. We give people platitudes or quick theological fixes. That is the self-centered advice of Joab.
Instead, I invite us to give the empathy of Mephibosheth. Sympathy is about us; empathy is about walking the road alongside of the hurting person. Which is exactly what Mephibosheth did. Mephibosheth was unable to walk due to a lameness in his feet. When David was thrown from the throne by his son, Mephibosheth could not follow in loyalty. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t loyal. In fact, the entire time that David was gone, Mephibosheth suffered with him in empathy. He refused treatment for his feet. He refused to trim his beard. He refused to wash or change his clothes. All symbols of grief, grief that he shared with his king. He chose the way of empathy, to suffer alongside of the one who is hurting, walk alongside of them as they are able, and give up their own needs for the needs of their friend.
It is the way of Mephibosheth. And more importantly, it is the way of God. Frederick Buechner writes about the story of David and Absalom, commenting on the words of the father wishing he could have died instead of his son: “He meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”
May we follow the ways of God in Christ, live lives of empathy and love, and be good neighbors to those who are hurting today.
The following music is used by permission under CCLI license #20126570:
“Holy, Holy, Holy”
Robert J. Hughes
Based on the tune NICAEA by John Dykes MCMLXXXIV Lorenz Publishing Co.
(The Organist’s Companion For the Church Year Book II—compiled by Lee Gwozdz)
“Celtic Alleluia” Fintan O’Carroll/Christopher Walker
©1985, 1996, Fintan O’Carroll and Christopher Walker
Published by OCP Publications
“Children of the Heavenly Father”
Arr. Anna Laura Page
©2008 Birnamwood Publications
“Let Us Break Bread Together”
Arr. Walter Knapp and Ruth Elaine Schram
“COME, GREAT GOD OF ALL THE AGES”
Mary Jackson Cathey
©1990 Hope Publishing Company
“When Sorrow Floods the Troubled Heart”
Paul Simpson Duke and Rebecca Turner
©2010 Celebrating Grace, Inc.
“Not Alone for Mighty Empire”
Based on a traditional Dutch Melody
©MCMLXXXVI Lorenz Publishing Co.
(Pipe Dusters Volume Two—compiled by James Mansfield)