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Companioning Grief

My mother died of breast cancer when I was 17. We had the service in the funeral home because we weren’t part of a church, and back then in our family it was traditional to open your home after the service and have people over for a potluck reception of sorts.

What I remember most about that day was sitting in the living room after everyone had gone home with my dad, the neighbor across the street, and a friend of mine. Somehow we began talking about the things people had said to us and how they responded to us. As well-meaning as many folks may have been, they weren’t always helpful. I didn’t want to hear about someone else who had breast cancer. I didn’t want to hear that they understood how I felt. I didn’t want to hear cliché’s or platitudes. As a result of that conversation we coined a phrase… we determined that we simply needed people to “sublimate their egos.” We needed people to get themselves out of the way if they were really going to comfort us.  We needed people to simply be there, share stories about my mom, laugh and cry with us, hug us and hold us. In short, to companion us with love.

St. John of the Cross once had a vision, “And I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of that river was suffering. And I saw a boat which carries souls across the river, and the name of that boat was love.”  

The kind of love that carries us across the river of suffering is a persistent, unconditional love. It is the kind of love where we get out of our own way, not making it about ourselves or our experiences, or our emotions or our expectations. Simply love that walks with, cries with, holds up another. That is the kind of love that gets us through our suffering and helps us to heal.

Hopefully each of us has had one or two people who have been that boat for us, carrying us over the rivers of our grief or pain. But I think it is rare to have many more than that. We may have lots of people who will help us, send us cards, bring us food and so forth, but to truly companion grief requires a great deal of devotion and commitment. It reminds me of the story of Ruth and Naomi.

Naomi, her husband, and their two sons lived in Bethlehem when there was a terrible famine. Seeking a better life for their family, they left all they knew to settle in the region of Moab, an area that worshipped different Gods and was probably seen in a negative way by Israelites of the time. However, not long after they settled in their new land, Naomi’s husband died. Her sons married two Moabite women, neither of whom had children before both the sons died. In the ancient world this left all these women in a very precarious situation.  Without a man to look after them, they were most likely consigned to begging and would have been in danger of being treated harshly and perhaps even exploited.

Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their mother’s homes where perhaps they might still marry and have children. Orpah went back reluctantly, but Ruth insisted on staying with her grieving mother-in-law and offers her this impassioned commitment:

“Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people will be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I’ll die there too
And I will be buried there beside you.
I swear – may YHWH be my witness and judge – that not even death will keep us apart.”

Truly Ruth’s commitment is inspiring, and I imagine we all hope we could be capable of that. It is the ultimate in friendship and devotion. Realistically, companioning one who grieves may not be quite that all-encompassing. But, it still requires much time, energy, patience, tenacity, compassion and understanding.

Paula D’Arcy, in her book, When People Grieve, tells a story about Jim and Betsy, the closest of her and her husband’s friends. Their two families shared many celebrations together, and their children played together. But after Paula’s husband and daughter were killed, she refused most of their invitations to get together. She started new friendships and shared her struggles with different people.

About a year into her grief, Paula offered to pick up an item at Jim and Betsy’s home that a friend needed. She drove into their driveway without much thought, but the moment she stood in front of their door she doubled up with tears. It was all clear to her then. This house and these dear people were reminders of her husband and daughter. She couldn’t look at them or their children, nor be in their home without being flooded with strong memories of what had once been hers and the times they had shared. It finally hit her that that was why she had avoided them, her heart simply hadn’t been able to manage the remembering.

But Jim and Betsy continued to offer out love to Paula, even though her refusals must have been hurtful and confusing. They continued to reach out in spite of her responses. Eventually, when she was ready, she regathered them into her circle. As she began to date, they extended invitations that included the different men she was seeing. Whether or not they questioned her choices, their arms were open. They helped her move from an apartment to a house. They watched her stumble through change after change with the words “We’re right behind you.” Their friendship and that of their families grew strong so that years later Paula's daughter, Beth, who had been born six months after the accident, was a bridesmaid in Jim and Betsy's oldest daughter's wedding.

We all need someone who believes in us when we can’t believe in ourselves. Someone who believes in our ability to heal, even when we don't. Someone who doesn’t shy away from our pain, but loves us through it. Someone who stands with us and accepts that we are trying to find our way and will eventually emerge into a new place. 

It was Ruth’s persistent love that helped Naomi to heal, and the persistent love of Jim and Betsy that helped Paula to heal. May we, too, not only give that gift of unconditional persistent love as we companion another in grief, but may we also experience that same love when we need it.

Love & Light!

Kaye