Life comes with milestones. In our children, we celebrate their first steps, their first words, their first teeth (especially once the teething part is done!). We celebrate graduations from high school and college (and kindergarten and so on). We celebrate weddings, renewals of vows, new homes, new cars. We see the importance of those moments as definite opportunities to rejoice together.
Those milestones don’t stop just because of loss, though. And it can be very hard. When family comes together over a birthday dinner, they are acutely aware of the empty chairs, even if they aren’t physically empty. Sometimes, there is a physical seat open; at our wedding, my husband and I set two chairs for his parents though they would not be there. We used his mom’s favorite flower and a ribbon in his dad’s favorite color to mark those chairs. But not every occasion involves an actual physical reminder of the absence everyone close to the situation knows only too well.
The joy of milestone moments is not disrespectful of the loss, but it is tinged with a sadness it would be foolish to deny. And that sadness is not a lack of happiness over the often long awaited moment. These are not mutually exclusive emotions, though we often feel guilt for one or the other (or both).
So how do we handle these moments?
I’ll start with the friends of the bereaved. Friends, it’s not going to make us hurt more to hear you mention the loss. We already hurt. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that some very important people are missing from my life; you aren’t going to reopen the wound by speaking their name. Many people have written on this and the consensus is: Speak! Acknowledge your awareness of the pain. It’s not awkward. It’s precious because it says: “You’re not alone! You’re not forgotten.” It lets us know it’s okay to grieve and it’s okay that it’s a process. Grief doesn’t go away; it changes.
Also, don’t be afraid of the tears that will come. Cry with us if you feel the tears coming; we don’t need you to be strong. We need you to be present. To be real. To let us know that our emotions are not bad. And if you don’t feel the tears; don’t fake them. It’s okay to awkwardly pat someone on the back; just please don’t pretend. Whatever you do, please, be real. Be honest when you don’t know what to say.
Let us know you’re praying. In a recent milestone moment, a friend unexpectedly came to me following all of these things. He didn’t speak names, but he spoke of the loss, he let the emotions show, and he let me know he’s praying as he understands this was a particularly difficult time. It was such a blessing to have that moment.
For those of us who are grieving, how do we get through it?
We need to remember that God is still sovereign, still present, and still very much aware of our tears. No matter what our feelings tell us, we must cling to the reality that God is. He isn’t dependent upon our feelings; He’s always at work. We have the option to cooperate with and rejoice in His work or hold bitterness against Him for what has transpired. Believe me, the better option is to cooperate and rejoice. He is completely worthy of all praise. Completely. And that is said out of a heart that knows bitterness toward God but has relinquished it and chosen to devote myself to Him. He. Is. Worthy.