By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
“he . . . kept his head down, not wanting them to see the shadow of grief he knew showed on his face. You don’t want to burden folks with your own pain. It isn’t fair, his mother had once told him, and he had never forgotten it.”
I ran across these words in a paperback novel I was reading last month, and two thoughts immediately occurred to me.
My first thought upon reading these words was that not wanting others to see our grief or to be burdened by our pain is probably a fairly common experience in our American culture of “rugged individualism.” A society that veers toward the increased privatization of education, prisons, healthcare, and postal services also assumes that grief be handled privately. This, I presume is the reason why many commercial funeral homes offer a “family room” where close relatives of the deceased can be present at the funeral service for their loved one while remaining isolated behind a thin curtain, out of sight of the officiating minister and others who sit in the main chapel.
There is an unspoken contract between friends and acquaintances: I won’t let you see my grief and burden you with my pain if you agree not to make your grief visible to me and inconvenience me by letting your pain spill over into my life. To do otherwise, as the character in the novel suggests, is not fair.
My second thought upon reading the above words was that we ought to view this impulse to privatize pain and grief as a huge mistake and take deliberate steps to thwart it.
What has come to seem normal in the United States is in fact contradicted by more widespread practices through the ages and around the world. In most times and places grief is understood to be a public act and when someone dies or when tragedy strikes in a village or neighborhood, the extended family or tribe grieves openly and without any sense of guilt or shame. In many cultures, for example, it is expected that members of a grieving family will wear black for a prescribed period of time so that others will not forget that they need special care during a difficult time.
The Bible too is quite clear that grief is not meant to be private or individual grief but a burden to be shared with others in one’s community. “If one member suffers, all suffer together . . .” (1 Corinthians 12:26). “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).
In the scripture passage that inspired the name Grief Watch, Jesus invites his close friends to share his grief. As he prepares to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death he says to his friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here [with me], and keep awake.” This is quite the opposite of not burdening others with one’s own pain.
But Jesus’ friends come to realize that Jesus as risen Christ will also later be with them in their own pain, as when he walks with two of them on the road to Emmaus in the famous story in Luke 24:13ff. And later generations of Jesus followers would learn to sing with great conviction and appreciation:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
--Joseph M. Scriven, ca. 1855
We also bear needless pain when we do not carry our grief to others and accept their help.
So my advice to all who are grieving is, never feel that you somehow have to do it alone. Invite a few persons whom you trust to walk alongside you in your grief. And later when they are carrying the heavy burden of loss it will be your turn to offer to walk and watch with them.