Recently I’ve been trying to serve as a support to a friend, Pat, who lost her spouse in January. Pat and Dan found their love late in life, but it was a once in a lifetime love and they clearly adored one another. They were settled into their life together, a beautiful life and with big dreams for the future. Sadly, shortly after his retirement, Dan passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. Pat’s plans changed without warning and without consent. Her dreams, their dreams, her future as she saw it, was gone. How morbid of me to say it like that? I can’t and won’t sugarcoat her loss. This is a devastating loss and there is no “nice” way to explain what she is going through.
I can see Pat trying to navigate life without Dan, I can see how much and how frequently she misses him. Some people might argue that you can’t actually see a heart break but I know different. I see her broken heart and when you lose someone you don’t just lose them once, you lose bits and pieces, here and there as “life goes on” without them.
Pat has two children, who are all grown up, a beautiful granddaughter and a community of support, but her Dan is missing and that leaves a hole none of us can fill. I see her faith, I know she values and sees her blessings but her heart is still broken. She is a woman who is grateful for the time she had with Dan and she counts her blessings daily. Grief doesn’t diminish the good & happy things in your life but the good & happy things won’t take your grief away. You have to carry it all, in constant conflict.
God, very appropriately delivered a message of “presence” to us on Sunday. The sermon was centered around presence and the notion that we can’t “fix” people or their problems, sometimes the best thing we can give to someone is our presence. Again, God’s timing! I cried my way through the sermon (this isn’t uncommon) because it hit so close to home. I thought so much about Pat and hoped she felt our presence even though, in that moment, we weren’t with her. I’ve come to care for Pat immensely and this sermon only cemented what I already knew, she was hurting and we couldn’t fix it, we could only be present.
Had it not been for my own experience, I might not have agreed so much with the sermon, I might have been more naive to the topic. Maybe I would have tried to “fix her” or temporarily “cheer her up” and go on about my life feeling good that I had done something nice for someone. Accepting our limitations can be difficult but it is necessary. I learned the hard way that there is only so much I can do. That can be very tough because we want so badly for our loved ones to be happy and whole.
So, what can I do? I CAN bring moments of comfort, I can help where she’ll allow me to (she’s a bit stubborn) but ultimately this road is hers to travel, and there are only portions of it we can walk with her. We can’t heal people with scripture or platitudes, while they are always well intended and appreciated, we have to dig deeper in caring for people. That might imply more work but sometimes the best thing we can say to someone who is hurting is nothing. Just be present.
Life happens in 1,000 different ways, in a 1,000 different spaces and no one is exempt from “life”. Guess what? Sometimes life is really, really hard. Life is not fair. Things happen that aren’t supposed to happen! Whether it be a divorce, a job loss, a death, an illness, a stressful/overwhelming time in our life, we need people who will always offer us their presence. Presence is a present, it is a gift, a gift that is genuine, a gift that says you’re not alone. This gift will never expire, it cannot be returned or lost under a pile of condolence cards. No, I’m not suggesting we stop sending sentiments but that’s not where we should stop either.
If you’ve never experienced loss, please hear this. Grief takes time. There is not one magic year, or two, or three where certain milestones or triggers won’t still knock the wind out of a person. Losing someone you love, is the worst kind of pain imaginable. Even if you think you can wrap your mind around the concept, multiply that thought by a million, you’re still not close. This is simply not something you “get” until you experience it.
Don’t give presents, give presence. Don’t forget their loss, they certainly haven’t and they never will. Don’t be afraid to say the names of those who have been lost, sometimes it’s nice to hear those names, that they haven’t been forgotten. Let people remember and recall happy memories. Acknowledge the hard days, don’t tire of their grief, and overlook it in hopes that it will just go away, because it won’t. Grief is easier when you’re given the freedom to grieve the way you need to and that is different for everyone!
Pat, you are so strong! I wish you could see the strength I see in you. I know there is an empty chair. I know your heart is broken. I know you will always miss Dan and miss the life you had, the life you had planned. I will always remember that you see an empty chair even when the house is full. I will always remember that a piece of your heart is in heaven and even in happy moments, you might feel a little tug that pulls you into grief. I promise to never forget your pain or your loss. I promise to listen to your “Dan stories” and smile when you remember him. I promise to be present for you.