How we can bring grace to a bereaved person. Susie Colby shares her heartfelt thoughts about the journey of bereavement after her husband’s recent death from cancer.
In May 2020 I was welcomed into the club no one wants to join – the fellowship of the bereaved. My husband Steve, InterVarsity Canada’s director of missions, had died the previous month – April 28 – of esophageal cancer, only 14 months after he had been diagnosed.
In this new fellowship I found a strange and unexpected solace, maybe because of the wordless understanding, or perhaps it’s because when I did have words, they were received graciously, without deflection or averted glance. Other bereaved people make no effort to steal or hide away from grief.
Most of my friends and acquaintances yearn to alleviate my sorrow. Although they mean well I find their impulse threatening and dismissive. Their desire is born not of ill-will but of ignorance (an ignorance for which they should thank God!). Raw grief is my most intimate and living connection to my dead husband. Attempts to soothe it can feel like cruel efforts to wrench from me what little of him remains in my grasp.
In my Christian communities, it seems more acceptable for me to respond to my friends’ words of comfort with serenity or theology, or faith-referencing aphorisms about where Steve is now and the anticipation of meeting him again.
Attempts to soothe my raw grief can feel like cruel efforts to wrench from me what little of him remains in my grasp.
Those friends seem to imagine they can usher me to a more comfortable place with these assurances. But I need people to acknowledge the horrible reality I am experiencing before they try to lift me from it.
Vancouver-based counsellor Jeff Hayashi says it is "the fear in our own hearts that compels us to locate or create certainty in others’ hearts, however contrived that certainty might be. Those who intend to comfort need to ask themselves, ‘Is there a fear or insecurity driving my need to comfort?’"
Foisting unwelcome comfort on a grieving friend creates tension and may add another layer of grief, because the bereaved may feel even more alone – and now deprived of this friendship as well. When comfort is blithely or earnestly bestowed, I must make a choice to comply or protest.
Complying, although it often seems easier, leads to a kind of hiding, which distances us. Distance and hiding mean a part of me remains unknown and held back. I become two selves – the high-functioning, cheerful-ish person getting stuff done, the person friends and acquaintances still enjoy and understand – and the woman inside yelling obscenities. The external person isn’t fake, but she is only part of who I am.
That woman inside is becoming less and less accessible to me. I am less aware of her presence. Externally this looks like healing, and according to much of the literature on grief healing seems to be the goal of grief processing. But the very idea of healing is hard for me.
"The minute we insert goal-setting as the pathway through grief, we are already off the mark," says Hayashi. Grief work isn’t about goals. "It’s about heart. It’s about friendship."
I need my friends to acknowledge and welcome the bereaved me, too. These long months after Steve’s death I am not hoping to be healed or to become stronger for having endured. I was strong already. In middle school my nickname was tough cookie.
I am not new to grief. Grief is not new to me. When I was 12 my father was killed when his car was struck by a drunk driver. At that time I was in a process of my faith becoming real and my own. After my dad died we discovered a note written in his distinctive engineer’s block printing taped inside his desk drawer. "This is not my life. This is my job. Christ is my life," evidence of the awakening of faith my parents had been experiencing.
My father’s shocking and sudden death brought faith – his and my own – into sharp focus. Either what I had been saying I believed was true, and therefore ultimately all would be well, or it wasn’t true, and all was lost.
By the time Steve was diagnosed with incurable cancer, questions of life and death had been firmly resolved for me. Steve and I had been partners in ministry before we were married, and we had spent over 30 years aiming together for the Kingdom of God. We lived what French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction" (Airman’s Odyssey).
I continue to be confident in the resurrection. There is a loud and insistent expectation in the Church that this confidence would be a comfort in grief. "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting" (Apostles’ Creed), just as Steve and I did before he died. Perhaps if I had lacked this confidence prior to his death, a renewed or deepened confidence after would be comforting.
However, that confidence in our brilliant future with Jesus doesn’t make today easier. I wish I had a T-shirt with the words of C. S. Lewis printed on it – "Don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand." Life was exceedingly more enjoyable, fulfilling, meaningful, interesting, purposeful, humorous and downright easier when Steve and I looked confidently forward to the resurrection together.
There is a song we sing at church that includes the line "Death is a lie." I want to protest in the pews (or in the Zoom chat box) – Sing that to me when I awake alone in my bed with Steve’s ashes in his dresser nearby. Sing that when I get up to take the dog out. Sing it to me while I take the car to the mechanic or mow the lawn or wait on hold for 90 minutes for one more agent, every one of whom is sorry for my loss, to assist me in another of the endless death chores a widow must do.
In A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis wrote, "It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ " I will go one step further than Lewis. I am completely impatient with those who say such silly things because, as Lewis continues, "Whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible."
Bereaved people like me live in an ever-disappointing reality they had not anticipated, that is irreconcilable with the hopes and dreams they once shared with the person they have lost. Reminders are everywhere – a customer service employee at Costco demanding a death certificate, letters addressed to the deceased, boxes that must be checked "widowed," and questions that will never be answered, from "Where do we keep the keys for …?" to "What shall we do this weekend?"
What others mourn as one great loss – the absence of a beloved friend or colleague – is experienced by bereaved people as a relentless cascade of small and large losses – inside jokes no longer shared, doubled chores and responsibilities, an empty spot at a tabl skipped aisles at the grocery store and returning to a dark house.
Bereavement is defined as the severing of a significant relationship. To be bereaved is to be deprived of that relationship. I love the accuracy of the dictionary’s description. I felt I had been severed by my husband’s death, and I envied those whose wounds were more visible. I imagined tattooing "bereaved" on my forearm to mark Steve’s absence beside me and make it visible to others.
His absence in my life and our family is itself a presence. His absence is our profound deprivation. I don’t feel lonely – lonely implies longing tinged with hope of union. Rather I feel a deep aloneness, as if I were surrounded by vast, empty space. I walk streets, attend events and participate in communities Steve and I once did together. To be in these places alone is to live a different, unfamiliar life. To navigate this space requires tremendous emotional work.
The Christian community, when it fails to acknowledge losses and express curiosity about what may be painful or awkward experiences, can impede this necessary work.
"We’ve deskilled people" when it comes to grieving, says Daniel Whitehead, CEO of Vancouver’s Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Lacking models and training, "Many of us are disempowered from knowing how to process difficult things…. We [unknowingly] create theologies so we don’t have to deal with our own stuff, deal with our own pain." This is a form of spiritual bypassing, a means of avoidance or repression, corrupting spiritual ideas or practices to avoid the emotional work required.
Whitehead says human flourishing is about relationships. When a relationship is severed, our grief isn’t fixed or resolved by theological answers, even if those answers are true. "Maybe we can look at grief in a more ancient way," says Whitehead. "Grief is there to be felt and felt in an embodied way…. We’ve lost that embodied way of grieving."
And we’ve made people feel guilty when they do. As if they are too much, and their grief is too long and lasting. It’s a double whammy! But "God welcomes our languishing," he says. "What if grief is not a problem, but a process? What if the community can benefit from allowing, even joining in grief?"
Imagine if instead of trying to lift us from our grief, our friends, unthreatened, joined us in it? What if they were curious about what might be discovered within grief? Imagine if, instead of having to choose between hanging out with old friends over dinner and games versus an evening of quiet melancholy, we could have both at the same time? Old friends, who were once our shared friends, attending to the absence of one whose love we all knew while eating meals we had once enjoyed together.
Here is what companionship looks like.
Companionship is speaking the dead person’s name without awkwardness, asking for and telling stories with clear eyes and a twinkle rather than bowed heads. It is quoting the dead and arguing about the accuracy of the memory rather than silently deferring to the widowed and changing the subject.
Companionship sounds like acknowledging what is truly awful – the endless paperwork and heartless processes required, the silence, the chores (washing and drying the dishes), the responsibility and challenge of making decisions alone, having to learn new ways to do everything from budgeting to car maintenance to travelling, just when your capacity to learn and engage is at its lowest.
Companionship is speaking the dead person’s name without awkwardness, asking for and telling stories with clear eyes and a twinkle.
Companionship is new habits of accompaniment, such as texting to report on whereabouts or shared errands. "Text me when you get home," one friend said when I told her I have no reason to turn on my phone when the plane lands. Another friend texts whenever she goes to Costco, knowing I would welcome some discount brie.
Finally, companionship in grief means allowing me my grief in whatever way I choose to hold it. To share in my grief requires my friends to embrace a discomfort they could otherwise avoid. In Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, narrator Yolandi’s multiply-bereaved mother Lottie wisely observes, "Letting go of grief is just as painful or even more painful than the grief itself."
Please don’t make me choose between my grief and our friendship. I prefer to have both. I’ve already lost too much. Our friendship will be much deeper and more rewarding, if you will hold this grief with me. Will you join me?
Susie Colby has worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for over 30 years in Canada, the US and around the world. Originally from California, Susie now calls Vancouver home.