As I stood on the beach in Cape May Point, New Jersey, I saw this magnificent rainbow to the East while behind me, looking West, the sun was setting over the ocean. How poignant a reminder of what awaits us in heaven after we take our last breath on earth. The cloud beneath looks like a heart (if you squint) with the aortic arch and the pulmonary veins branching off it.
Sunsets and rainbows are visual symbols of something being over — the storm has passed or the day is done. These two images are often used as a reminder that better things are to come. In other words, we long for our circumstances to be improved in some way. Serendipitously, the day after snapping the photo above, I heard a sermon in which the pastor asked us to consider the question “what would it take to make you happy?”
For someone who is grieving, there is no good answer to this question. What would make him or her happy is to have their loved one back. Clearly this cannot be achieved. Yet one thing that often helps is the love and comfort other people can offer.
I recognize that actually talking about someone’s grief is something we don’t like to do. It’s the elephant in the room that we try to pretend we don’t see. I can think of several reasons that we tend to abstain from “going there.” Since we are people who like to fix things, if something is beyond fixing, we are stymied. Not knowing what to do or say, we back off completely. We also like happiness, in ourselves and in those around us. We lean toward happy people like plants toward sunshine and, by contrast, we prefer to avoid those who block us from receiving it. If someone is unhappy and we try to come alongside them, we will share the emotional weight resulting from circumstances that cannot be fixed, like death, loss, tragedy, or illness. It takes energy and courage to do so and we are self protective by nature. In addition, we worry that we will do it wrong or make things worse. Perhaps we have a subconscious fear that the person’s situation is somehow contagious. We want to head off being affected so we distance ourselves. Also, when we feel helpless to change a situation, especially one that impacts another and not ourselves, we often put up a shield.
If someone admits that they are sad or having a hard time, it is not unusual to get tongue tied and wonder what to do or say. We may voice some platitude in an effort to close the conversation and make our escape. When we do so, the person who needs our human connection is left to deal not only with their grief but also our obvious choice to neglect it. This adds to their pain. We can make a better choice.
In a time where so many are struggling with loss, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of a daily parade of headlines about the latest tragedy, we need to reclaim our humanity by offering a light of hope to others. Yes this applies to those who are grieving, but it’s also suitable to just about anyone. Even the small act of acknowledging that you truly see another person is a way to start. Doing this requires making the person in front of you the focus while you try to understand their situation or perspective. This might not require a lot of time but it does require intention. It’s an other oriented mindset. We “see” someone else when we stop to ask them whether or not they are okay. Just asking this tells another that we have truly noticed them.
What a simple, but meaningful gift of encouragement we give others when we validate them through seeing, asking, and listening.