An Odd Juxtaposition of Incongruent Elements

My youth pastor once preached a sermon where he used an illustration.  He had been an art major, and while he was out viewing art, he and a friend saw a beautiful, old, ornate cathedral.  And on the front of it was a neon florescent lit cross.  He tells the story of how his friend tilted her head, somewhat confused, and expressed, “That’s an odd juxtaposition of incongruent elements.”

Grief is a lot like that neon cross on the cathedral. An odd juxtaposition of incongruent elements.  It doesn’t always hit us the way we expect.  And it certainly doesn’t always look the way others expect.

I remember when an elderly friend died. His wife didn’t cry at all at his funeral. They had been married for over 60 years…and she didn’t even cry at his funeral.  Instead, she cried months later when her friend’s husband died. She cried at his funeral all the buckets of tears she wanted to cry at her own husband’s, but couldn’t.

Grief is a funny thing, isn’t it? When and how it chooses to manifest itself often makes no sense at all. We often feel sad when we don’t expect to and okay when we expect to feel sad. We have times where tears are expected and culturally appropriate, and times where expression of emotion is frowned upon. But our grief doesn’t always hit us on the timetable that we, or everyone else, expect it to.

I expected to cry when Zion was stillborn. But I didn’t. I felt numb right then.

I expected to cry at his funeral, during the slideshow, or maybe while my sister sang the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” But I didn’t cry then either.

I cried when I saw the hearse and wasn’t expecting it. I cried when the funeral director had us carry the casket out together as a family and lay it in the hearse, and I wasn’t prepared for that. I cried when I was alone in my bed. I cried in the car. I cried in the shower. I cried a lot.

But other times, I laughed when I didn’t expect it. I laughed with my family on my birthday, the day after he died, while I was still pregnant with his lifeless body. I smiled and recounted my blessings over a Thanksgiving feast that friends and family and I had been bound and determined to enjoy.

My sister and some friends and I laughed over something silly after his funeral. We did Christmas and birthdays, and celebrated, and plodded through the weeks leading up to his missed due date. I dreaded that date. The weeks leading up to it were filled with that odd juxtaposition of incongruent emotions. Some days were sad days, some days were okay. Most days I curled up alone in my bed at night and felt sad.

For some reason, May 1 was the date that my heart broke. The first of May, the month I had been dreading for so long, was the day when all the pent up grief from the months before washed over me, and I felt its suffocating weight. I hadn’t expected that.

If there is one thing I have learned from this, it’s that grief tends to manifest itself in the ways we don’t expect. The ebb and flow of sorrow and normalcy come in and out like the tide, some days soft and slow, other days, crushing and overwhelming. We don’t choose when we feel grief’s vice-like grip. And sometimes, that can be hard for others, those on the outside looking in, to understand.

It can feel confusing to watch another person grieve, because they don’t always appear to grieve in the same way we would, or think that they should. It can feel duplicitous when we know how heavy their heart is, but somehow they smile and laugh, or do “normal” things, or even appear to have fun.

There are no rules for grief. There can’t be. Everyone experiences grief differently. Everyone moves through its stages differently and at different paces.  But please give the grieving person the benefit of the doubt. Please don’t judge them for not crying when you think they should, or crying when you think they shouldn’t. Please don’t shame them for having moments of “normalcy” where they are able to smile and laugh despite their heavy heart. Please don’t expect them to conform to whatever pattern of grief you feel theirs should look like.

Grief is a scary, confusing, multi-faceted beast.  It never manifests itself in the ways you expect, and rarely at the times you expect.  The last thing a grieving person needs is to be told how their grief should look so it makes you feel better.  Our brains always want to make sense of things, and grief doesn’t make any sense. It just is.  And grieving people just need you to be with them in their “is,” without judgement or expectations.  They have no idea how their journey will look or how long it will take, but trust me, it’s even scarier for them to navigate than for you.  Just keep loving grieving people, thinking of ways to help or lighten the load, offering encouragement and love.  Their process may take longer or look differently than you expect or think it “should.”  That’s okay. Just walk with them anyway.

While I was out one evening,  choosing to have fun instead of mope, one of my friends snapped this picture of me.

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I love it. It reminds me that not all of life is sorrow and sadness and suffering.  It reminds me that, as awful as these last few months have been–for so many reasons in addition to the death of my son–there is still some joy.  There is still happiness.  There is and will continue to be healing.  There is light at the end of this tunnel.  And beauty will rise out of these ashes. (And if your concern is actually that in my sorrow, I am turning to drinking and debauchery, have no fear. We can have a conversation about our views on drinking and smoking if you want, but please don’t make wrong assumptions based on a picture.)

These two pictures, side-by-side, are an odd juxtaposition of incongruent elements.  But they are no less true.  Grief is an odd juxtaposition of incongruent elements, too.  Two hours after the smiling picture was taken, I was curled up in bed sobbing.  These pictures, to me, are a visual representation of the complexities of grief. There is no right or wrong way.  There is no time frame.  There are no rules.  Grief just is.

Please don’t watch a grieving person from the outside and assume they are depressed or sinning because they exhibit sorrow.  Please don’t judge a grieving person for smiling or laughing and assume they are cold and heartless.  Please understand the multi-dimensional, complex creatures that God made us as humans, and give grace instead of condemnation.

Our brains naturally want to make sense of the senseless.  But grief doesn’t make sense.  It’s just like that neon green cross flashing atop the gothic cathedral.  Strange.  Confusing.  Odd.  Ugly.  Irrational.  It doesn’t make always look like we think it “should.”  But maybe we should be the ones changing how we think grief “should” look, instead of shaming the grieving person for  not conforming to our expectations.  Maybe we shouldn’t impose our expectations on those who are just trying to figure out how to feed ourselves and our kids most days. Maybe we shouldn’t judge grieving people for having good days followed by bad days followed by good days. Just walk alongside them instead of analyzing their every step. Pray for them instead of persecuting them. Serve them instead of waiting for them. Take the opportunity of being friends with a suffering soul to extend grace, mercy, and love without strings attached.   “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He didn’t wait for us to get it all together. He came to us at our lowest.  May we be there for the hurting when they are at their lowest, offer a hand up, and walk along together.

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