‘Permitting’ Another’s Sorrow

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job 2:11-13 (ESV; emphasis added.)

This Wednesday, my wife, our friend Dale Wilcox and I will begin to facilitate yet another 12-week session of DivorceCare at The Crossing. Shelly and I have been facilitating DivorceCare for four years now, and through that ministry have met scores of individuals who were all over the place on the continuum of allowing themselves to feel – really feel – the appropriate level of grief that one would expect to accompany the end of what was supposed to be a lifelong commitment. Some folks are still in denial, telling anyone who will listen that they are “Doing just fine!” while others can barely choke out a complete sentence without bursting into tears.

No matter where an individual may be in their own personal journey through the well-known Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief, there is at least one thing that seems to unite us all. (I very deliberately say “us” as I, too, had to live through the fires of separation and divorce back in 1997-1998.) The one thing we all seem to have in common is a close-knit chorus of well-meaning voices urging us to “get over it,” to embrace the fact that it’s “time to move on,” or to encourage us with the well-meaning but particularly-noxious, “I know someone I could set you up with, if you have any interest.”

Illustrations by Christopher Koelle.
Taken from the poem book of Job by John Piper.

My wife and I just finished reading through the book of Job once again, and the strong parallels between Job’s three “friends” and those we often see comforting a divorced person in grief are striking. It is worth noting that Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar did their best, most God-honoring work in the closing verses of Chapter 2. Once they open their mouths, however, it is all downhill from there. Far from comforting Job, their words only serve to agitate him all the more, and this – you will recall – occurs within a week or so of an astonishing amount of personal loss. (Quick Tip: If you are tempted to argue several points of theology when “comforting” a survivor of great loss, better to just get back in your car and go home.)

Job’s friends did several things right in the first seven days of their visit to comfort their friend. They wept in horror at the condition in which they found their good friend (Romans 12:15). They provided Job with a comforting presence (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). And they kept their mouths shut (Proverbs 10:19; 11:9; 12:6; 12:18; 15:2; 17:27-28).

As much as one might try, people who have never lived through a divorce just don’t get it when it comes to the feelings and fears that can make an individual’s life a 24-7 living hell. In many ways, divorce can be even worse than physical death in that the “deceased” is still alive and (many times) has morphed into a committed adversary, perhaps taking up a sexual relationship with someone else or otherwise openly mocking what was once held close to the heart.

I mention all this simply to say that suffering people must be allowed time and space to grieve. That may seem like a remarkably obvious thing to say, but for whatever reason, divorced people are very often denied the time and space they need to grieve because their deep pain makes the people around them feel uncomfortable. Far from wordlessly weeping with our newly separated friends, many folks attempt to “fix their sudden singleness” and the pain that singleness has brought into their lives. No one would ever think to walk up to a widow at her husband’s funeral and offer to set her up with “a great guy I know” – at least I hope no one would ever think to do such a thing! – and yet I can tell you for a fact that people who have only just recently separated from their spouses (and not even divorced yet!) get these sorts of “helpful offers” all the time. Particularly for those who have yet to experience divorce personally, it’s very difficult to recognize that an individual is walking through a “living death in the family” and he or she will need time to grieve that loss.

One of the video segments in the DivorceCare curriculum pulls out the old cliche that says, “There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.” Most people interpret that axiom as a caution against someone who might quickly resort to violence. As the segment continues, however, we also are encouraged to see the word “dangerous” as meaning that people in grief are often prone to making disastrous life choices simply because they are not, at present, thinking clearly. The dead last thing we want to do is encourage this person to court even more disaster. By rushing our friends to counteract their grief by making choices that inadvertently compound it, we have to step back and confess that our own desire for comfort has enticed us to do more harm than good to someone we claim to care for.

Human history has never before produced a generation so keen to hustle people through their grief and arrive at the other end, so the party can resume and the band can once more strike up a danceable tune. We Americans, in particular, seem uniquely predisposed to inappropriately cajole the legitimately-grieving person into a false state of plastered-on happiness. This is unhelpful. My recommendation for anyone whose friend or family member is recently separated is, “If you really love this person, then give them permission to be ‘not quite right’ for as long as it takes. Try hard not to put your personal comfort and a desire for an easy relationship on the list of priorities ahead of this person’s obvious need to grieve.”

For those folks whose friends don’t have the insight to allow for an extended time of grief, I encourage those hurting people to ask for it. Simply “ask permission” of your friends and loved ones to “not be quite right for a while.” Thank them for their efforts to help, but make some very clear statements about what you most need right now. Something like, “I really appreciate your friendship and your concern, but I’d like to ask that you not try to set me up with someone right now. Please wait for me to let you know when I might be ready for something like that.”

I know it’s hard to see someone you love in pain. For what it’s worth, I’ve become stuck in Ecclesiastes 3 for several months now. Meditating on these verses over and over, praying for those that grieve over deeply-upsetting life situations and losses and asking God to heal my own heart has brought me to a place where I am no longer instantly ill-at-ease when another person begins to shed tears.

Quite the opposite, in fact. I have found the Spirit most powerfully at work in my life and the lives of others when I set aside my selfish desire for an “easy, hassle-free” conversation and make it clear that I honor the grief being expressed and the individual expressing it. Even when the grieving person says things about God that I strongly disagree with, it seems to help more when I can just be quiet and locate a box of Kleenex. I am beginning to recognize that there will be a time to help that person correct their theology, but that this is not that time.

We all have so much to learn from the Bible. (How’s that for an understatement?)

Ecclesiastes 3:1,4,7 (ESV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

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