By Ken Noble
None of us wants to experience pain. Yet we live in a world of pain, with so many losing loved ones to Covid-19, war, oppressive regimes, dementia and other afflictions associated with old age. How can we cope, especially if we lose someone close to us?
To try and answer this question I spoke to a friend, ‘Susan’, who lost her husband after only a couple of years of marriage.
At first, it was a shock, she says. ‘It didn’t seem real, more like a nightmare. It felt as if he would come back again.’ Then, she says, there was a lot to do – organising the funeral and making new arrangements. It was several weeks before the reality began to sink in that he was not going to come back. Ever.’ One of the things that she found most difficult was that, long before her new situation was real to her, all of her friends had already adjusted to the idea of his death.
My own experience of ‘loss’ has been quite different. It was most real when I was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness. At 60 I was faced with my own mortality. Before I had the operation which saved me, but could have failed, the thing I most appreciated was friends who would talk normally to me. I found it hard when people avoided me, perhaps because they found it hard to know what to say, or gave me bracing advice on the need to accept God’s will. Mind you, some people were a bit too frank. One person asked me what was wrong with me and then cheerfully said, ‘Oh, that’s what so-and-so died of!’
I have learned, from talking to others, that you have to let grief take its course. It is probably different for each person. Some time after my father died, for example, I was doing something that I normally loved to do, and yet there was no joy in it. I believe that was my grief expressing itself in an unanticipated way.
You cannot avoid pain; you cannot deny loss. Trying to suppress grief stores up problems for later. After the shock and the grief, may come peace, acceptance, understanding – or they may not come. Others may have suffered greater loss, but that is no consolation. And it’s definitely not something to say to someone who is grieving.
So how can we care for someone who is grieving? By being there for them, trying to be sensitive but also being aware that you will not always get it right. If my experience is typical, by not being unreal. And don’t assume that you know or understand what they are going through.
Being a person of faith will not reduce the sense of loss. But it can help you come to terms with it. In the Christian faith, as in many faith traditions, death is not the end. Yet that’s not something that everyone is comfortable with, and though it can be reassuring, death is still something that we don’t like to be confronted with. The Bible says, ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’
That may sound rather mystical to some. However, at the time of my illness I felt the reality of people’s prayers for me. When I was ill I read that many people with cancer ask, ‘Why me?’ The answer, as it turns out, was another question: ‘Why not me?’ I found this helpful, as accepting that we have no divine right to invulnerability can help us be honest and live authentically.