By Blake Oliver
I was at the hospital when they “called it.” Nothing prepares you for the moment when you lose someone close to you. I stared at Mom’s body until I couldn’t look anymore. I sobbed while a doctor patted my back.
My mother had been ill about a year. Every day had the same routine: I woke up, went to the hospital, had college classes, went back to the hospital, went home, and slept. I had never prayed so earnestly before, never wanted so much for God to do something. Every positive health report was a victory, every setback a defeat; but I believed that God would heal Mom here on earth.
Shortly after she died, I was asked by a nurse which funeral home to call. There was little time to grieve before being forced into the business aspects of death. All the details of putting together the funeral ironically made grieving almost impossible.
In those months after Mom passed, I heard a lot of condolences, prayers, and advice. If I could go back, I would have three pieces of advice for myself.
Stick to the Basics
My life was upside-down. I started to ignore things I knew to do, like eating three meals a day and showering every morning. I tried to throw myself into as much as I could—anything to elude my grief, to feel I had things under control, to not be alone in the post-Mom life. Routines are comforting. My mother died on a Tuesday, and I returned to school Monday at 11:00 a.m. A friend asked me, “How are you here?”
“This is the easiest part of my day,” I replied.
And it was. Not only was college my routine, but it was an escape from my house, which I had to clean out. I had classes Monday through Thursday, and I could stay after in the library for hours to work or read or write. From there I slowly went about picking up the pieces of what life should look like. Grief makes life overwhelming; it’s a time to not ignore the basics: making sure to eat, spending time with friends, working, and getting enough sleep.
The People Who Care Will Be There
Not all friends run to your aid in these situations. There are those who don’t get involved for one reason or another. They might not be able to handle it. That’s not your fault. All major life events show us the strength of the relationships in our lives.
Beyond feeling abandoned by those friends, feeling like a burden to your grief counselor is even worse. My church connected me with a young man who was an intern and seminary student. The first time we met for a session, he asked, “So, how long do you think these meetings are going to last?” It was a terrible start. I remember looking at him as though he might be brain-dead for asking a question which was more offensive than he could have possibly meant. (Note: In the event that you are ever comforting a grieving person, don’t ask how long they expect to be grieving. They won’t know. It’s not like they’ve picked some Saturday a few weeks out to suddenly feel better.) This question set the tone for the rest of our meetings and made me almost feel guilty for needing grief counseling.
On the morning Mom died, I contacted a lot of people before collapsing into bed. That night I was invited over by my dear friend Erin. She did what any good church friend would do: helped me make dinner. We ate, watched a movie, and she let me talk at my own pace. There was a lot of not talking about what happened that morning, but it became unavoidable as the truth of it washed over me.
Nothing is harder in those first days than admitting that your loved one is gone. Part of it doesn’t even feel true yet, so saying it is a challenging confrontation. A lot of that conversation happened with me lying on the floor. While sounding eccentric, it’s surely the next step after someone with bad news says, “You may want to sit down.” If the news is catastrophic, you may want to sit or lie down on the floor. It’s stable and comforting, and it helped me share my grief with my friends.
My church small group met the day after Mom died. The group leader was the only one I had told, but I knew the others knew when I entered the room. It was in their eyes. Once I finished sharing what happened, the leader led our group in prayer—not for answers or even that I would feel better; he prayed that the group would be able to support me and that friends would do the same. It was the simple prayer that I needed. I needed no maxim about God’s goodness, no assurance of his plan. I needed my friends and my church for support.
Know That God Gets It
While Mom was sick, I prayed every day that she would get better. In the last week, it looked like she was going to make it. Then she didn’t. I got mad at God; he either abandoned me or failed, and I knew he couldn’t fail.
This was not the end of my faith, though it could have been. This was a deepening of it. By this point, I had heard mostly just the good parts of the Bible—the good things happening to good Christians. The hardest books to read in the Bible, and yet the most helpful, were the books that came up in my Bible reading and sermon series at that point: Job and Ecclesiastes. While these books dealt with depressing subjects, they were just what I needed.
I needed to hear that bad things happened to good people like Job. If a man like Job lost everything, it’s not out of the question that others would too. Like Job, I wanted to argue that I’m a good person and that God has made some mistake—bad things shouldn’t happen to me (Job 13:3). God’s reminder is stern, loving, and takes multiple chapters of the Bible, asking question after question—not about Job’s (or my) guilt, but about God’s own planning, his organization (38:4-11). So often people who suffer hear that “God has a plan” (based on Romans 8:28), but this speech confirms that God has been intentional since the beginning of the world.
Still I kept thinking how unfair it was that my mother was gone. In Ecclesiastes we see that unfair is the world’s default setting (9:2). The world is terrible for everybody, not just those who don’t follow God. Did all these deep biblical truths make me feel better? No. To be honest, I already knew these things. Most people do. I needed the reminders, but they weren’t all I needed.
This leads, as it should, to the Gospels. Christ was betrayed by his friends and alone on the cross (Mark 15:34). The end of Jesus’ life shows the culmination of the world we live in, but the resurrection gives hope for our eternal home.
Surely knowing that God understands suffering and sacrifice made me instantly feel better, right? No. But it was a start. Grieving is a process, and these were important steps.
Blake Oliver is an educator and writer living as an expat in Lugo, Spain.