But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. Galatians 5:22,23
A beautiful Autumn day, a cup of tea with my husband, a visit from our daughter, Sunday worship, evenings with our remaining boys still at home – all these give rise to genuine feelings of warm and cheerful peace. The sadness is still there under the surface but it is not dominating the moment.
But then there are those other times. Times when it is hard to be with people; hard to listen to their problems; hard to smile at their successes. Hard to get the social momentum going. Hard to care.
When you are hurting, it takes a lot of energy to stay involved in the lives of others in a meaningful way. But with God’s help, we can do it. He commands us to love one another, to love our neighbor as our self. This loving of others can take many forms but mostly it involves putting others first and doing what is best for them, sometimes at your own expense.
Sometimes it means having a good cry two days before a social engagement so you can be dry-eyed on the big day and not spoil the pictures. Sometimes it means withholding a smart remark while listening patiently to someone mourn the loss of a pet. Sometimes it means bucking up and doing a job that needs doing even though your heart is hemorrhaging.
So, when I manage to arrange my face into a smile, or I muster up the energy to appear “happy,” I am not “denying my pain.” I am not “wearing a mask.” I am not disregarding, or being disloyal to our son’s memory. I am not trying to fake having it all together in the eyes of God or man. I am not sugar-coating child loss. To attempt such a charade would be ludicrous. What I am attempting to do is to put the giant named Despair out of the room and my own feelings on the back burner while trying to focus on the needs of the moment.
If I am truly counting my blessings and cultivating a thankful heart attitude, responding to How are you? with I’m fine is no lie. I have lost much, but I still have way more than I deserve. I’m fine is actually an understatement and doesn’t begin to cover the myriad blessings God has bestowed on our family. I’m fine seems meager compared to God’s great and merciful dealings with me. I am astounded that He is pleased to accept my paltry Thank You, Lord.
Smiling and maintaining my “OK” for the sake of another’s comfort (or my own), is not being a cold-hearted stoic. It is not being fake. It is exercising the grace of self-control for the honor and glory of God. It is being a genuine testimony to the power of God’s sustaining love and the veracity of His Word. It is being other-centered instead of self-centered. It is modeling the fact that God is sufficient to comfort me to the point of composure, quiet acceptance, contentment, peace and joy.
This does not mean we can simply “choose” to be cheerful. To be honest, cheerful is not my default right now. No, we must come to God and ask Him to help us and to impart His peace, His joy, which is a different thing altogether than “happiness.” Regular time spent with Him in His Word and with His people produces an out-flowing of the real thing – the joy of the Lord.
At first, joy may be only a sporadic trickle, a drop here and there. Or it may come, like grief, in overwhelming bursts. It may look different in different people. In some it may manifest as a delightful, bubbling brook. In others, a quiet, peaceful pond you barely notice. But, if the Lord gives it, it will be the genuine article.
Am I there, yet? No, I am not, and I am pretty much writing this post for my own benefit. The discipline of grieving is not a grace which is acquired instantly. It is not easy to be a student in the school in which it is taught. The lessons are hard and sometimes long and we fear we may never graduate. Sometimes we feel like dropping out. But the Holy Spirit of God, the Comforter, is a tender and patient Teacher.
To those around me, I offer the best I can do in God’s strength. The wrenching pain I bring to Jesus in private. Yes, often my motive is to avoid the embarrassment of crying in front of people and so maybe I am proud. But I do not think I should be encouraged or even pressured into letting it all hang out in the name of “being real.” This is not heroics. It is self-control.
The bereaved should not be made to feel that if they are not displaying the requisite “vulnerability,” they are not then properly grieving, or that they are not “processing their grief in a healthy way.” I am not obligated to prove by my tears, to anyone, that death is horrible – I think people get that. Nor do I need to show them the dregs in the bottom of my cup in order to prove that God is able to lift me out of despair. And even if I were to share my pain whenever and wherever it hits, to whom would attention truly be drawn?
I cannot make the non-bereaved comprehend the pain of child loss sufficiently to satisfy my need for understanding, and so I should not get bent out of shape when they don’t get it or they quit trying. Sharing the full impact of my pain, and telling them how the Lord has met me in it may be useful, but can never impart to them, in an effectual, internalized way, the lessons regarding the sufficiency of God’s power to comfort and heal. I can witness to the fact He does and thereby allay their fears to an extent, but there is a limit to what others can learn through reading or hearing about other people’s encounters with God’s faithfulness. This lesson is something that must be learned in the fires of first-hand experience. Reading or hearing about it is helpful and encouraging. Seeing it lived out in someone’s life is reassuring. Living it yourself welds it to your soul and makes it your own.
Spilling our emotional guts may not edify the non-bereaved the way we intend and trying to “educate” them usually proves unsatisfying. They cannot feel what we feel and, unless the listener is extraordinarily wise and sensitive, unloading on them tends to confirm what they already suspect: “she’s not handling this well at all”; “she’s stuck;” “her mind is going;” “her faith, her god, is false and worthless,” and so on. Even sharing deeply with another believer has a limit to its helpfulness – our experiences are all so different. I think that may be why child loss can be so terribly lonesome.
Though I speak, my grief is not asswaged:
and though I forbear, what am I eased? Job 16:6
The only way out of child loss is up. The best comfort we can give each other down here is to share the Word, and to pray and weep together. The worst of our pain we must give to Jesus. At times, some roads must be walked alone.
So, I don’t say much. I do not hurt less because I keep my emotions in check. Composure should not discredit the reality and depth of my pain. My responsibility is not to try to make others “embrace” or make a “safe space” for those of us in the “child loss community.” I don’t feel compelled to “raise awareness” about the grieving going on in our “broken culture.” My responsibility is to praise God in the midst of my sorrow and to do it honestly and with adherence to His Truth.
When I put on a happy face for you, I am not stuffing anything. I am not “in denial” or being dishonest or fake. Hopefully, instead of calling attention to myself, I am calling attention to my God who graciously grants me the grace to look beyond my own circumstances and gives me the strength to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
When you ask how I am doing and I answer I’m fine or I’m doing alright, I hope you will see right through me and my fragile smile, and into the heart and mercy of Jesus. I hope you will see His grace shining brightly just below the fractured surface of my soul and that you will give all the glory to Him.