This last fall, a friend of Emma’s lost her mommy to cancer. Little Jasmine was only five years old, and she had to bury the most important person in her universe. There were many tears in our home that day, and Emma asked if she could give her friend a sympathy card. It seemed like an important card so I asked her, “Would you like me to help you?” Without a moment’s hesitation she looked up at me and said, “Mom. Don’t worry….I KNOW what to write.”
And of course, she did.
"Dear Jasmine, I am sorry. I am so very sad. I love you. Heart, Emma."
And that…was it.
And that…was everything.
Because she gave what she had. And she said everything that mattered.
Sometimes I wish that Emma didn’t know exactly the right thing to say in a sympathy card. Sometimes I wish that she didn’t know how to hold someone tenderly while they are grieving…and I especially wish that I was never the person she had to hold.
And at the same time…we have completely failed as parents if we raise kids who are cool, and fun, and popular, and interesting…if they are not kind. Because if they’re not kind…if they’re not deep and thoughtful people who have the soul-capacity to weep with others, and if they’re not people who can truly walk alongside those who are hurting all around them…then what in the world are they going to have to offer?
What in the world are our kids going to bring that actually matters…to a world that is bleeding out literally everywhere…if they do not know how to help when others hurt?
Because our kids live in a world where every single person they meet…is going to die at some point. And most of them…are probably going to suffer long before they get there. Sadly, little Jasmine is probably not going to be the last of my kid’s friends who has to suffer through the heart-wrenching loss of a parent.
I don’t want to be melodramatic, but this one of the hardest realities of life that every single one of us…is destined to suffer. At the end, for sure. And many of us, along the road that takes us there.
This is the deal. This is the deal we made, when we joined this hurting and broken world.
This was the deal made for us…in the Garden long ago.
A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of the arduous task of scrubbing Emma’s head with our “Mold Shampoo.” The shampoo is a thick, black, sticky-goo, literally made out of charcoal, and it’s basically a wonderful way to have conflict at bath time. (And who in the world isn’t looking for a little more of that?) As I wrestled the shampoo into her hair, Emma suddenly burst out, “I hate this mom! Why do we even have to live in a world where there is mold!”
I then explained once again about Adam and Eve, and the snake and the garden, and sin and salvation, and the Gospel and God. I was feeling pretty good about my theological conclusions when I suddenly looked down at those big brown eyes, surrounded by thick, black charcoal suds, and slowly filling with tears. And then she said, with all the quiet vengeance of a woman scorned, “That Adam and Eve…they ruined EVERYTHING for us.”
You could have heard a sud drop.
Because there it was. Gospel truth. Right there in the bathtub.
I’m sure that if any one of us had been given 24 hours in that Garden…we probably would have landed ourselves in the same big mess. But what a mess it is. We live in a deeply painful world where children get sick from neurological toxins, and babies die in their mommies wombs, and little girls have to stand alone by the gravesides of their mamas. And though it is sometimes filled with beauty…this world is also filled with an astronomical amount of suffering and sorrow.
And because that is true, it’s critical that we who are His actually know what to do when we are sitting in funeral homes and hospitals, and staring at broken hearts and blank sympathy cards.
A number of people have asked me to share ideas on how to come alongside those who are suffering around them and I have two thoughts on this…
1. What to do.
2. And why to do it.
Whether a person is suffering from a broken body or a broken heart, I think the ways that they need to be loved are often very similar. Because whether you are suffering from grief or struggling through chronic pain…you suddenly find yourself in a foreign land. You went to bed one night in a bright, happy, hopeful place…and woke up the next morning in a strange land full of aching pain and dark shadows.
And you, quite possibly…are never going back.
I never realized how much chronic pain is actually similar to grief…until I went through both. At the same time.
Both, are the shadowlands.
Both, force you to live in one world…while everyone around you, seems to skip merrily along…in your old world full of life and hope.
And both…are a death. A death of dreams. A death of plans. A death of capacity. A death of relationships. And a death of faith…at least faith as you once knew it.
I remember laying in bed the first day after Charlie’s death and thinking, “Nothing, nothing, nothing…will ever be the same.” And it wasn’t.
Every single one of my dreams for Charlie’s life…was over in one single heartbeat.
But what I didn’t realize in that moment…is that so many of my dreams for my other kid’s lives…were gone forever as well.
My sweet Freddo turned 3 years old…the very next day after his baby brother died. Which means that in the brief 365 days between his 3rd birthday, and his fourth…Freddo attended the funeral of the brother who was going to be his forever bud, experienced the total soul-incapacitation of both of his parents, watched us bury two more babies that same year, and saw his mommy get so sick with toxic mold poisioning that she couldn’t even get out of bed for far more days than I can count.
And then…he turned four. And the day after his fourth birthday…we found out we were being slowly poisoned by toxic mold, and had to get rid of almost every thing we owned. All of those beautiful new birthday presents Freddo had just gotten the day before…went right back out the front door. And that…was basically Freddo’s third year of life.
But the worst part, is that that was Freddo’s only third year of life. And Sophie’s only first year of life. And Emma’s only fifth year.
And you can buy a bunch of new stuff…but you can never, ever…buy back a year. It is just plain gone.
And I know that so many people who have suffered the loss of a loved one, or who have walked through chronic pain with a house full of small children, feel exactly as I do. Something deeply precious was lost…TIME was lost…and you don’t get it back.
You may get new days…but you will never again get those days.
And it hurts so incredibly much.
And so…my first piece of advice on how to come alongside others who are suffering is…
Help multiply the time they do have.
*Babysit their kids.
*Wash their car.
*Buy their groceries.
*Run to the bank for them.
*Clean their house.
When you are so sick you can barely move, or when your heart is so broken you can barely function…you don’t want to be cleaning your tub with bleach. Clean it for them. I have a memory from my childhood of going to a woman’s house whom I had never met before, and helping my mom clean her dirty bathrooms. She was dying of emphysema and in so very much pain, and all I kept thinking as I scrubbed this strangers bathroom, and listened to her hacking cough was, “I’m so very glad that I am doing this…and she isn’t.”
The same is true for errands. When you are sick, and I mean paralyzingly sick, and have been given no promise that it is ever going to end…the last thing you want to do is spend the little strength you have…on grocery shopping. I hated going grocery shopping after Charlie died. Grocery shopping is a remarkably social endeavor, that someone may simply not have the emotional or physical energy for when they are in chronic pain or the deepest months of grief. And they still have to do it, because you have to eat to live. Shop for them. Tell them, “I want you to make me a list. I will pick out only the juiciest oranges, and the crispest apples, and I’m going shopping for you Tuesday, and you can’t say no.”
It doesn’t even matter what you do…just take something off of their plate for them.
Because their plate is FULL. Full to the brim with a bunch of truly miserable things…that yours most likely isn’t filled with. Doctors appointments…grief-counseling appointments…hours laying in bed in either physical agony or deep soul anguish…hours spent weeping on the floor. Every one of the those words…pretty much describes so many of my days for the last year and a half.
And through it all, I still had three small children who needed baths, and prayers, and help with their homework. My life was full of things from the land of shadows, and I didn’t have much left in me for my “old life” I still had responsibilities in. That is why it meant the absolute world to us…when people offered to babysit. There really should be a sixth love language entitled “Free Babysitting for Those Who Need It.” (And that, by the way, is literally EVERY parent I know.) I am crying even now, as I think of the incredible friends, and family, and college students who have babysat for our family over this last year.
Two weeks after Charlie died, Reid had to go back to work and I vividly remember thinking, “I can’t even function I am in so much pain…and I have to take care of three little people.” And grief, much like chronic pain…cannot be scheduled. It. Just. Happens. And one day, it happened to hit hard. Sophie really needed a nap, and was clinging to me like a tiny koala with sharp claws. And I could not stop the tears. I remember being so desperate for just five minutes ALONE to cry…that I literally escorted Sophie to the far corner of the house, got her distracted with a toy, and then ran as fast as I could to the other side of the house, slammed the door and locked it…just so I could cry for five whole minutes alone.
I got about four. And then, I heard her pudgy little fists pounding on the door. “Mommy!!! Let me in! Mommy I found you. Let me INNNNNNN!”
That…is when you call the babysitter.
And I did. And she came. And she gave us hope…hope that we could at least get through one more day of the Shadowlands we now found ourselves in. Babysit for them. You’ve probably got far more energy for their kids…than they do. And it will mean the world to them to have a break from their normal life so they can focus on their side job of suffering and sorrow.
I don’t want to paint this picture that we have tons of babysitters floating around our house…because we don’t. We have a babysitter for date night, and sometimes on Tuesday mornings. And they are an incredible gift to us. But what mattered most…especially in the most painful, early days of grief, and the worst days of mold poisioning…is that we had people who were willing and able…to come when we needed them most.
And they made it easy for us. And this is critical. Hundreds of people have offered to help our family through what has become our life of one catastrophic loss after another. But the MOST helpful things…the things that actually panned out, and really, truly made a difference…happened when people made it easy for us to have their help.
Our friends who gave us a gift card for a date night after Charlie died…and then actually came over with their kids and babysat ours.
Our friends who offered to start a “Meal Train”…and then made it easy by sending us the completed list of who was coming and when.
My parents who offered to clean our whole house with ammonia until their noses literally bled from all the toxins…and then actually did it.
Our friends who literally brought over pillows, and blankets, and a change of clothes the night we found out that everything we owned had to go…without us even asking them to.
My point…is that offering to help…is not helpful. HELPING is helpful. Saying you’re going to do it, and then saying, “I’m putting it on the calendar,” or “This is when I’m coming,” or “I”m really wanting to take your kids for you, will next Tuesday or next Thursday work better?”
Words…are simply not enough.
There were so many times when people would offer to help and I would think, “If I have to HELP YOU HELP ME…this isn’t going to be very helpful.”
What you do…probably doesn’t even matter. Just DO something.
This is especially important…after significant time has gone by. Your friends who perhaps most need your help right now…are not the ones who just found out they have cancer. It’s the one’s who’ve had cancer for months. And everyone else’s life has moved on from the shock of their diagnosis…and their’s hasn’t. They are still in the shadowlands. They still have cancer. Their organs are still shutting down. And they are still weary, and exhausted, and overwhelmed, and in an incredible amount of physical pain and soul despair. And it will still mean the world to them…for you to bring them a meal, or buy their groceries, or take their kids to the park.
I can tell you that this matters…because it still matters to us. We are not longer completely broken, and bleeding, and laying on the floor…but we are also not exactly thriving. We are in that middle, no-man’s land…where we are not “there”…and we are not “better.” And even now, as I type, an amazing college student is watching my precious ones so I can sit at this coffee shop, and write this blog, and figure out our medical bills, and connect with the Lord. So that when I get home…
I can be all there.
And that, is my point. Because when you experience the loss of someone you deeply loved, especially the loss of child…you are simply no longer all there. You, whether you like it or not, have been called to grieve and called to suffer, and it takes an incredible amount out of you. A part of your heart…has permanently left. Left for the land of Shadows. And you cannot avoid that journey…because grief forces you there.
But also, a huge part of me…has moved to heaven. My heart moved to heaven when Charlie died last year. And I bought a house there when his little sibling died in June. And built a playground in the backyard when the next baby died. And in February, when I got so sick that I couldn’t even function anymore…some days I would just lay in bed and cry out, “Jesus, please just take me Home NOW!”
Because grief and suffering took me to a place I had never wanted to go before. It took me to the land of, “Please God, Anywhere…But Here.” And when Charlie died, for the first time in my life, my immediate longing for Heaven…completely surpassed my appreciation of earth.
I want to be clear…I did not want to take my life. I just no longer wanted to live.
And if that sounds crazy to you…well then, you’ve just never been in so much physical, or spiritual, or soul pain that you’ve gotten there…yet.
But you may.
And even if you don’t, I am quite certain of this…
There was once a beautiful garden. And it was filled with beautiful, but fragile people. And a lovely tree, and an ugly snake, and a world of trouble. And we’ve been in trouble ever since.
And if you live long enough, and love deep enough, your life will soon be filled with beautiful, and yet broken and fragile people who are suffering deeply under that wretched curse from long ago.
And you…have been given the power to help.
In fact, if you are His…you have been given Help Himself. Because He lives in you. And that same Spirit who Jesus promised to be a “Comforter,” and an “Encourager,” and a “Friend,” will be those to someone else…every time He moves your limbs to clean their house. And every time He moves your car to drive to Trader Joe’s so they don’t have to. And every time He gives you the joy of babysitting their sweet kids. And every time He moves your heart to write that note.
And all of these “things to do” are so important. They are love in action.
But we have also been deeply encouraged by people who live thousands of miles and even continents away from us…who took the time to love us with words. You don’t need lots of eloquent words. You don’t need a little sermonette filled with Bible verses and profound theological thoughts…in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t.
You just need to tell them how you feel.
Tell them, “I feel so angry that this is happening to you.” Tell them, “I feel so very sad, I cried all morning for you.” Tell them, “I love you and I wish so much that this wasn’t your life, and that I could take this all away from you.” Tell them all of THAT…because they FEEL those very things too. And you’re saying it…will make them feel less alone.
And that is ALL you can do.
Because you can’t take this away. You can get sad, and angry, and devastated, and discouraged that this is happening to them…just like they do. And you should. Because that stupid curse has made this, for the most part, one miserable world to have to suffer through. But all you can do is be there with them in it.
And that…is enough.
Because Someone else has promised to someday end this suffering once and for all.
And until then, He has a plan to make Himself known through every single pain and every single sorrow and every single grave and every single tear. He will not waste a single one. I have cried so very many…and I am clinging to the promise that He doesn’t waste our tears. And I am banking on the promise that He doesn’t waste our wounds.
He uses them. He glorifies Himself through them. He calls us to them. Sometimes He even calls us out of them.
And sometimes He calls us to live in them. For some of us…He calls us to Suffer. And for those all around us…He calls us to Help. And we will all, sadly, take turns in these roles, many many times over.
And if right now you are one of the people who are being called to Suffer for the glory of God…ask people to pray for you. And then ask HOW they are praying for you. And to never STOP praying for you.
And ask people to help. Send them to this blog, and tell them I told you to ask others to do these things for you. Because you are precious to Him. Especially in your pain and your brokenness and your suffering…you are so very precious to Him. And He has not forgotten you. And He had made the Body of Christ…to be His most poignant reminder of that fact.
And if right now you are not one of those who are being called to suffer…then you are being called to Help those who are. Not because you have the gift of “mercy,” but because you have the gift of His Holy Spirit.
Close your eyes, spin around three times, open them, and point. I am SURE you will find someone within the hour who desperately needs your help, your encouragement, and your prayers.
Or maybe even just a note.
And don’t worry about what to say. Just trust Emma on this one…
"I am sorry. I am so very sad. I love you. Heart."
It’s just twelve little words. And yet the very heart of walking alongside those who suffer.