Don Follis: Healthy people embrace grieving and loss

Don Follis: Healthy people embrace grieving and loss

Emotionally healthy people can be unflappable. They can enter a hurting person's world while still holding on to themselves. Hanging between those two worlds is a mark of real love.

It's marvelous to watch a person carefully listen and offer unconditional love when they don't agree with the person at all.

Listening well, and occasionally asking clarifying questions, is worth much more than our words, especially when people are in pain.

A few weeks ago, I preached two sermons from the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is an Old Testament book stuck between the books of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It is a collection of laments, thus the name. You talk about people in pain. The laments describe Babylon's destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. These words fill their cries: "Jerusalem, once so full of people is now deserted. ... She sobs through the night; tears stream down her cheeks. ... The roads to Jerusalem are in mourning, for crowds no longer come to celebrate the festivals."

Lamentations is simply Jeremiah's description of what happened. It's not a commentary trying to make sense of the destruction. Preparing my messages, I spent a lot of time just sitting with this agonizing narrative, just the way you would with a hurting person. In one sermon, I read the entire second chapter of Lamentations. It took me 4 minutes and 20 seconds. I wanted people to feel the weight of the sorrow.

In simple terms, grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. Grief expert John James says, "Grief is the conflicting feeling caused by the end of, or changes in, a familiar pattern of behavior." That might be the death of a loved one. It might be the loss of a dream or a marriage, or even putting your last child on the bus as she heads off to Kindergarten.

Early in our lives, most of us develop a well-formed belief system about grief, mourning and pain. Out on the northwestern Kansas prairie, by the time I was a teenager my belief system was quickly solidifying. I had learned, "Big boys don't cry." "Don't be angry with God." "Stuff it." "Something good will come out of this." "Play through the pain." "If you're going to cry, do it in your room." Welcome to the "Land of Numb" where everyone is — you guess it — "Just Fine!"

Or how about these "myths" we may speak to a hurting person? "Don't feel bad." "I know just how you feel." "Be strong for others." "You can replace the loss." "Keep busy." "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." "The first year is the hardest." "God needed another angel." "I just can't imagine how you are feeling."

Add to those "myths" these intellectual truths. "He/she is in a better place." "Well, we all know there is a time to be born and a time to die." "She led a full life; she had a good run." "He is no longer in pain." "God has a plan." "Be grateful you had him as long as you did." "This too will pass." "At least she did not suffer." "God is in control." "God works all things for good."

Are the "myths" true? Mostly, no. Do you really know how others feel? Does God truly need another angel? We don't get more than we can handle. Seriously? Not according to a person I counseled recently. She said, "Well, only about every day."

And what about the intellectual truths? Are they true? Technically, yes. But is that what you want to hear from people? If you get laid off, do you want to hear, "God must have a plan," or would you rather hear, "I'm so sorry to hear that news." If your kid gets cut from the team does he want to hear you say, "Don't worry honey, something good will come out of this. God works all things for good." Might he rather hear, "I am so sorry. I was so hoping it would it different."

Someone said to a woman who had miscarried, "I'll sure be hugging my kids tonight." That probably is true. But do you know what the woman who miscarried was thinking? "At least she has kids to snuggle."

We all know that loss is part of life. People mostly need our love and genuine empathy more than they need to hear us say, "I want to share my favorite Bible verse with you." There may in fact be a time for you to share a Bible verse, but never until after you say, "I love you" and "I am so sorry." Ninety percent of the time that will be all you need to say.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.

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