When my youngest child was diagnosed with a (minor) heart defect, I held it together all through the four-hour visit to the specialist’s office and even after we arrived back home. I went upstairs to put the boys down for naps while my husband filled my mother-in-law in (she had watched J for us all morning and was anxiously awaiting news of Eyes), explaining that the need for a couple relatively non-invasive surgeries was a possibility some years down the road, but nothing was certain; and Eyes’ quality of life was certainly unlikely to be negatively affected. Really, this was the best news we could ask for after our pediatrician noticed his heart murmur.
All day I had worked hard to focus on this positive and not give in to grief. Why was grief necessary, after all? I had an obviously happy, healthy boy in every other respect, and the heart condition was so minor, it might not ever need treatment. And if it did, we had all the tools we needed to fix it, thereby eliminating what could have been, in a previous century, a sudden, inexplicable death at age 15.
I came downstairs, afraid to look at my MIL because I knew her compassion would give my fear and sadness an opening. I was right. She looked right at me, her face somber, and asked, “How are you doing?”
I looked away and started an explanation of how it really wasn’t too bad; it was manageable; really everything had every reason to be ok. I got maybe two sentences in before I choked up and couldn’t talk any more. The tears leaking between my eyelids scared me.
Mom came over and gave me a big, long hug. She didn’t say anything. She understood; she grieved with me.
We had suffered a loss–not of life, certainly, but of normalcy and security and stability. Pete Scazzero writes in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality about how losses of every sort need to be mourned appropriately. If you don’t, you haven’t acknowledged or understood the truth of the damage. And if you don’t acknowledge and understand the truth of harm done, as both Milan and Kay Yerkovich and Dr. Laura Markham point out, you will carry that harm around with you–physically, in your body–and allow it to further damage yourself and others.
Mom kept me from doing that by stepping into my unsettling, foreboding, intimidating emotional state. She entered my grief and took it up for herself. In that moment, I experienced the greatest possible comfort.
Shared Sorrow Allows Secure Relationship
I don’t know why the act of sharing sadness is so edifying–but it is. Perhaps someday I will uncover the mechanism behind the clock face, but for now, I’m just grateful to have discovered a reliable truism that fills an incredibly deep need in myself and others.
However, promoting the benefits of this way of relating, enormous though they be, is an uphill battle.
Shared sadness is an highly undesirable emotional state in modern America. We feel immense guilt over the idea of burdening someone else with a negative experience. Yet this is one of the the most powerful, effective ways to love another person–BOTH by sharing our honest internal state AND by absorbing that state into our own consciousness for the sake of authentic communion.
In fact, it sounds and feels much to me like the communal meal Jesus shared with his friends the night before he died. We perform the physical act of eating and drinking in church even today in order to attune ourselves physically to Christ’s emotional state the night before he died: his fear of death, his unstoppable love of humanity, his grief at parting, his security in his purpose, his conviction of the goodness in the divine plan at work, his disappointment in being betrayed… so many emotions distilled into bread and wine, served to his friends, meant to be shared. It was a symbolic representation of his sacrifice, yes, but I think it was also an invitation to know his heart in all its complexity–just as he knew theirs, knows ours.
Authentic relationship requires open emotional depth. The disciples might not have known what was going to happen, but I think they understood the evening was special, meaningful–and sad.
When we do nothing but refer hurting loved ones to Scripture, the grand divine plan at work, or the abstract “goodness” of the Lord, we skip this indispensable step, and our attempts at comfort and edification fall apart. Instead of building up, we deconstruct. Many folk have examined the narrative of Job to explain this, but suffer me to review it briefly once more:
“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:11-33, NIV, emphasis added)
Job’s friends entered into his state of grief: they sympathized. They offered comfort–how? By tearing their clothes, crying aloud, and dusting their heads. Then they stayed by Job’s side for a week. All this time they didn’t offer a word of insight, commentary, criticism, or advice.
None of this looks at all like the modern American description of “comfort.” Usually, “comfort” is synonymous with “distraction” and “reliving the good times” or perhaps “alleviating the symptoms of distress.” But Job’s friends couldn’t alleviate a thing, and attempts to distract or recall the good old days probably would have gotten them thrown out of his house. What actually gave him any comfort and support was their empathy: their ability to experience misery alongside him. To weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Did Job’s friends focus on comfort and sympathy exclusive to all else? The rest of the narrative tells us no. But they sure spent a danged lotta time and effort on it before anything else.
The Foundational Need For Comfort
In the talk my husband and I heard by Dr. Markham, she outlined three steps for responding to a child’s tantrum in an emotionally perceptive, helpful way. This is my summary:
- Calm — Soothe an upset child through physical touch; limited, quiet speech; time away from the problem area/people; and the reassurance of your affectionate presence (which is NOT the same thing as approval for poor behavior).
- Connect — Once the child’s emotions have settled down, he or she can truly hear you, so now is the time to discuss what prompted the outburst. ONLY gather information to understand your child’s inner state in this phase and relate to it; this is NOT the time to correct poor behavior or offer advice.
- Problem-Solve — Now that the child has had your help to physically calm his or her body and knows you compassionately understand and relate to the struggles that led to a tantrum, he or she is in a state to trust your guidance in resolving those struggles appropriately (and making amends where necessary). The focus is on helping your child live a more fulfilling, abundant life secure in love rather than merely curbing bad behavior–which, in fact, will decrease naturally as a child experiences your help and develops trust in your instruction.
My husband and I both thought this was brilliant–and, as he said shortly after the talk, it’s an approach with broad applications to relationships in general, including adult relationships. Milan and Kay Yerkovich think similarly when they describe the three necessary aspects of comfort that people–both children and adults–need to experience in order to develop a secure relationship (How We Love, pp. 15-17):
- Physical touch — “Significant studies have shown the incredible importance of touch on a baby’s development.² If you have a memory of comfort, was your parent hugging you or holding you? Was there tenderness, and were you soothed? Some parents touch and hold babies and toddlers but then stop offering nurturing physical contact as their children get older. Yet touch is and remains a vital component of true comfort.”
- Being listened to — “Second, was at least one of your parents able to listen and help you talk about what was upsetting to you? Parents who are good listeners ask questions so they can understand what is going on in their child’s heart and mind. . . . ‘You look sad. What’s bothering you?’ ‘I know you don’t want to go, but help me understand why not.’* These kinds of requests tell us someone is interested in our hearts. It’s even better when the feelings we then share are confirmed as appropriate, reasonable, or understandable.” (*Dr. Markham astutely notes that such examples of overtly recognizing feelings only work well with children up to a certain age; after that, it’s more appropriate to note subtly that something isn’t right and offer to listen, then relate.)
- Relief from conflict — “When we were children, if someone noticed we were having a hard time and offered us a safe place to share our troubles, we felt seen and valuable. Being touched and being listened to brings relief. If we felt sad and our parents listened to what was troubling us and held us as we cried, we felt soothed. If we were able to express our frustration and someone listened and responded, we felt relief.” And, on page 14, “How was conflict handled in your family? For example, was there a time when you were not getting along with one of your parents of when stress of a specific problem caused a lot of tension in the family? Did disagreement leave you feeling alone and disconnected to your parents or family? If you were fortunate enough to be part of a family that acknowledged problems and successfully resolved them, you learned an important lesson: when conflict ruptures a relationship, repairing it brings relief.¹ If, when you were young, you experienced the relief that comes with resolving disagreements, you will seek that same experience in your marriage as an adult. If not, when things go wrong in your relationships, you may have difficulty expressing yourself, finding solutions, and feeling relief.”
Isn’t it remarkable how two different sets of professionals from different backgrounds and different areas of expertise came to exactly the same conclusion? I don’t think they even reference each others’ work! Despite differences in phraseology, the principles all match up. They also bear striking resemblances to the reaction of my mother-in-law as well as Job’s friends.
Where Is God In Sorrow?
I did not experience any part of these three phases of comfort for most of my childhood. Therefore, once I reached adulthood, I had no idea how to seek or receive comfort from another human being, much less offer it myself. It’s taken me over a decade to really start figuring it out, and it has affected all my relationships–including, very noticeably, my relationship with Jesus.
I’ve been a completely-inadequate-but-desperate-to-try God-pleaser most of my life, almost as far back as I can remember–largely, almost wholly out of fear. I didn’t experience comfort-through-conflict in relationships with humans until I was 20. Wouldn’t you know, though, that was through an internship with InterVarsity USA, and it gave me a rubric for understanding how God might have an interest in comforting me–and, more importantly, an actual capacity to do so all along through the messiness of my life. The details of how this realization worked itself out has taken ten years even to get to where I am now, and the lesson isn’t close to finished, so this isn’t a good time to elaborate on my progress so far; the cool thing, though, is that at this point in my life, I FINALLY have a way to understand HOW, when terrible things happen, God is still good.
This may seem unrelated to everything else I’ve discussed so far, but bear with me; it’s not.
Experiencing Divine Comfort
I never experienced much, if any, sympathy from my parents when they allowed or witnessed something bad to happen to me–not for something I deserved that they inflicted, nor for something that happened to me outside of their control that I didn’t have coming at all. I was just expected to grin (or not, if I was in trouble) and bear it. Therefore, I naturally assumed God has the same attitude toward me.
When things go wrong–terrible things like cancer, chronic illness, death, abandonment, abuse, neglect, on and on–that Jesus lets happen or (shudder) somehow *intends* to happen, as with Job–he sits down with us in our grief over it. He throws the dust of our agony, our misery, our anger, and our despair over his own head; he tears his clothes; he mourns with us. As long as we’re in pain, as long as it takes. He knows us more intimately than we know ourselves; therefore, he intimately knows and understands and experiences every facet of our pain–and he neither shies away nor deprives himself of any of it. He listens.
Jesus also soothes us physically: he brings me the air I take into my lungs, one shaky, sob-ridden gulp at a time. The softness of a blanket, pillow, or furry animal. The warmth of my baby’s skin. The light of the sun angling through the blinds. The prickling of water on my eyelashes and the swollen capillaries in my nose. The taste of blood at the back of my throat when it fills with disappointment. The tender hum resonating in a loved one’s chest. The itch of my feet that reminds me I have them: my five senses and an entire world to regale them, reminding me that reality does not consist solely of this single aspect of existence–my grief. It consists of infinite other meaningful moments as well, so many of them life-giving, and so many others necessary vehicles for physically experiencing, acknowledging, understanding, and resolving the effects of grief upon my body and my psyche. Jesus calms.
Finally, after we have worked through our emotions, calmed them, and felt their worth and legitimacy has been recognized, Christ whispers reassurances, wisdom, guidance, and security to our hearts. Here is where Bible verses and theological truths or just the insightful words of a friend may provide a sense of clarity or resolution. Christ resolves turmoil.
Oftentimes, I find that merely knowing Jesus experiences my grief with me brings all the resolution I need to the swirling “Why?” and “What do I do now?” questions. This sentiment is reflected in my favorite psalm:
Lord, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
From this time forth and forever.
(Psalm 131, NKJV)
For whatever reason (I see good reason to believe God always has one, even if I can’t comprehend what it is) Jesus will allow senseless tragedy and provide no relief from any number of horrible trials, even to the point of death. But I believe each one of those heartbreaking incidents that I’ve experienced or heard from others or seen on the news absolutely, utterly rips him apart. God doesn’t always bring relief from trouble, but he does, always, offer us the most foundational form of comfort and relief:
The comfort of sharing our sorrows.
Just as he invited us to partake in his experience of deepest trouble, he partakes of every negative experience along with us, knowing it to its very depths. To the last draught; to the bottom of the bitter cup.
In this kind of communion, the comfort brought through shared experience underlies every sort of grief and pain. It is a deeper magic still.
That is the goodness of God that I cling to in my darkest moments: not the knowledge that he has a plan; that he gives me good things in other times and places; that someday I will find rest from trouble in Heaven–though all these things are true. But it is my confidence that Jesus knows my sorrow, hates it as much as I do, and takes it upon himself. He has not left me to suffer alone.
This means my God could never visit trouble upon us out of spite or indifference. It means that, when he sees fit to allow trouble, he visits it upon himself as well. Every. Time.
Can you imagine the infinite amount of sorrow Jesus must then carry?
This is why I worship him. He carries every sorrow that ever was and is and will ever be–and he is not defeated, despondent, or destroyed.
He is alive. He is whole. He is stronger than every evil thing combined. He will see them all undone at the end of time.
And until then, he will bear every sorrow for me.