In the church, we talk a lot about loving and caring. It is core to the message of the gospel.
God cares, Jesus modelled compassionate care, and we are called to follow his example.
In recent months, after the death of my daughter, I have been reflecting on the care I have received and the carelessness of some forms of caring and non-caring. It seems to be that sometimes when we think we are caring we are in fact bruising people. Caring is an art; let me give a few examples.
The standard greeting ‘how are you?’ can be just a polite gesture, or an automatic response to meeting someone. On its own it may not be a genuine expression of care. In bereavement, it can feel like your emotions have been run over by a Mack Truck. There frailty, torrents of tears and a longing to be loved, listened to and understood. I have been surprised by how many people ask ‘how are you?’ and never really even wait for a response.
Others don’t pick up basic clues. When the reply comes, ‘well I am okay,’ they just reply ‘that’s good’. A little more pastoral sensitivity would know that ‘okay’ just means I am breathing and functioning. The ‘okay’ is a polite way of saying, ‘my heart is broken, my life is busted, how do you think I am?’
For a person suffering deep emotional pain, the question ‘how are you?’ is often not the best place to start. A grieving person feels that you rain on someone’s parade when instead of saying ‘okay,’ you say ‘terrible really’ (which is much closer to the truth).
It is more caring not to lead with a question but with an empathetic comment. Something like ‘you must have been having a difficult time since so and so passed away,’ or, ‘it’s good to see you, I feel for your loss’. When you greet a person who is grieving with a statement of care you are acknowledging their loss, rather than enquiring about their emotional state.
Mitch Carmody, author and bereaved father of a nine-year-old son who died of a brain tumour, said, “Our child dies a second time when no one speaks their name.”
The death of a child is the worst trauma a parent can endure. Grief is not something one simply gets over, it is life altering, an ever evolving presence. I have been surprised by the number of people who say things like, ‘I know how you feel, I lost my ninety three year old grandmother last year.’ That is like comparing a broken arm with an amputation, while both are painful, one heals quickly, while the other permanently disfigures.
Even words like ‘take care of yourself’ or other equally trite advice feels like a mini lecture than an expression of kindness.
I have been also disappointed by how many caring professionals actually ignore you, change the topic or act as though nothing has happened to you. It is like they are so self absorbed that to genuinely express care is too much to ask.
While we all agree love is a great idea, expressing it in word or deed sometimes takes a lot of reflecting and practising. A grieving person of course is very fragile and in danger of being unfairly critical, but they can spot genuine care from mere politeness when they see it. Love makes the unbearable bearable, the love of Christ and the love of other is a healing love.
Paul writes “there is nothing love can’t face” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
How we express this love really matters.
Rev Steve Francis, Moderator of the Uniting Church WA