WHAT TO ASK IN A TIME OF LOSS
Have ever noticed how awkward we feel to approach another in a time of loss? What can we say? What can anyone say? Our first urge is to want to fix things. After all, we are practical people. But this is not something fixable. Our next urge is to want to make everything “all right”. But we must be careful about suggesting that we understand more than we truly do.
We discuss these matters in Care Circle meetings. One of the worst things to say is, “I know exactly what you are going through.” Seldom is that the case. Just as every relationship differs, so also every loss is different. And as we approach someone bereaved, we have no idea where they are in the surging roller coaster of emotions feeling numb, tender, surreal, empty or angry.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone has been wonderful to Cecile and me in our time of loss. In fact, you couldn’t have been better with your warm comments, heartfelt notes and caring embraces.
Still, I want to share something with you. What took me several decades to learn as a pastor is that once the memorial service has come and gone, a generally helpful question to ask is: what are the special qualities or unique gifts of (Garth) that you imagine you will miss the very most?
Our grief alternates between the pain of feeling separated from our beloved and giving thanks for the unique gift of God they were to us. Living on the pain side of that equation gets old. So letting the other celebrate the unique life of our beloved is a gift. It’s a smile-through-the-tears kind of question. Just for practice, let’s pretend you asked me about Garth. Here is my answer:
- Garth was a fun and positive person with a great sense of humor. But neither did he fear people’s pain as they stared into the abyss. It’s a great combination in a human being. A friend of Garth’s told me how he insisted that the friend move in with him when going through his divorce. Lots of floor hockey in the living room, complete with body checks and pictures crashing. “All of the cool brother things you did with him,” said the friend, “Garth did as a brother with me when I found myself needing it most. It was deliberate.”
- Garth had a heart for the most vulnerable. He met his wife Marcela on a Habitat work trip in Mexico. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Garth flew in, determined to help, not knowing how. He rented a car and drove toward the ruined neighborhoods. At first, the National Guard pointed their rifles at him. Is this a looter? His job was to enter flooded homes to determine if they could be saved. If they could, he duct taped closed refrigerators (toxic inside!), and put them on the lawn for disposal. By the end, wearing his Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, no one in Louisiana would let him pay for his own meal. My brother was a human being moving toward disaster to help as others were fleeing it.
- My brother was a wonderful athlete. He shot a 77 at the Old Course in St. Andrews with his golf buddies last Labor Day. Garth refused a hockey scholarship at Bowling Green U. to play baseball at Western Michigan U. His high school hockey linemate, not someone of Garth’s level, went on to play with Wayne Gretzky on the L. A. Kings. As Garth moved to Southern California, he was the poster boy for the trendy roller-hockey craze on the beachfronts in the Nineties, featured in their magazines. He also loved beach volleyball.
There. I feel better having shared those bright lights that’ll live in my heart. God, I miss him so.