In a world that encourages us to do what makes us happy, why should sadness ever be something we allow?
Ok, so not the most cheery title, but bear with me - I promise you'll finish reading feeling encouraged!
When we see someone we love in a painful situation, all we want is to get them out of it, take on the pain for them, help them to feel better.
Often, we can find, by default, we approach this by giving others advice and distracting them to lessen the pain; it's definitely a tendency for me.
The problem is, it can disrupt the healing process, or even put it on hold all together.
I've experienced abandonment from those close to me through physical illness and during a time where I was really messing up and desperately needed help. For others, it was easier to avoid the situation all together.
By helping others in painful circumstances, and experiencing how people have responded to my own difficult seasons, I've realised that we respond in this way because we feel awkward and pained ourselves, and want to get rid of that feeling.
In reality, whether it's our own pain or dealing with others', we often chase happiness rather than pursuing growth.
How can I help a grieving friend?
1. Turn up
“Want to help a grieving friend? Let them be sad. The thing is, you can't cheer someone up by telling them to 'look on the bright side' or giving them advice. Your job, honestly, is to feel awkward and stay there anyway. Just hang out with their pain.” - Megan Devine
I think this quote is soooo good!
God wants us to love one another really well, and often that is through laughter and fun, but it also involves sitting with our friends through the hard times too.
Job (chap in the Bible) is renowned as someone well acquainted with suffering. I feel it is often a book that we Christians avoid due to the theological challenges!
I want to put forward the notion that there is so much to learn from Job, and we can use it to understand how to deal with sadness well.
When Job was suffering loss, this was his friends' reaction:
'When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was' - Job 2:12-13
Tearing of robes and sprinkling of dust was symbolic of grief in Hebrew times - what is interesting is that Job's friends weren't following the regular custom. Throughout the bible, it's been those who were directly afflicted who performed this tradition, but Job's friends positioned themselves in grief with him.
They set aside their time, ripped their own clothes (I'm sure they didn't have a very big wardrobe!) and selflessly sat with him, without talking for seven days and seven nights, and only spoke after Job broke the silence.
Not because they wanted to, nor found it comfortable in any way, but because they loved Job and knew it was the best thing for him.
2. Suffer with them
Job's friends did this in response to 'seeing how great his suffering was' - they saw the pain.
What I find particularly profound, is the English word for 'Compassion' is defined as 'sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.'
It then figures that I always associated compassion as helping out those less fortunate than I, and feeling sorry for them.
In society, charities turn our focus to giving what we have to provide to those who don't have; I'm not knocking this at all, but I don't think it gives us the full picture of what it means to be compassionate.
The Latin root word for Compassion is 'Compati':
'pati' means to suffer,
and the prefix 'com-' means 'with'.
I believe that the connection of suffering with another person brings compassion beyond sympathy, into the realms of 'empathy': 'to understand and share the feelings of others'.
This turns my focus on compassion being much more than just concern.
For one, sharing in the way others feel highlights humility, and the way that Jesus never hesitated to level with people, or even position himself below them, like the way he took the position of lowliest of servants and washed his followers' feet (John 13:4).
As well as being generous with what we have, God knows it's important for us to serve others by getting alongside them.
In the bible, God describes himself as 'Compassionate'; it's the first word He uses to describe himself in Exodus 34:6.
The Hebrew root word for 'Compassion' is 'Rekhamim' which can also be translated as 'deeply moved'. So God tells us that He is 'deeply moved' by us and our suffering, so much so that he chose to personify how deeply moved he is, by sending Jesus to walk in our shoes and experience the very extremes of human suffering to save us.
I find this so enlightening, and challenging!
I believe that God's heart breaks for us when we suffer, and in that sense, he 'suffers with' us.
Whilst I've experienced my own deep suffering from near-death experiences with my chronic illness, understanding the feeling of being betrayed, of guilt/shame etc., I have found it difficult to understand the feelings of other people's sufferings that I haven't experienced firsthand. I think most of us do.
If you've been a Christian for a while, you'll probably know the song 'Hosanna' by Hillsong.
I LOVE this song and relentlessly prayed these lyrics over my life:
Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom's cause
As I walk from earth into eternity
Since I started praying for God to work on my heart and read more about his compassion, I've noticed I've become more aware of people's suffering and how to feel that with them - recognising when it's best to give helpful advice, and when it's best to sit in silence and lament.
We will never be able to love others and understand their suffering as much as God does, but the more we try, the closer we get.
Healthy sorrow leads to growth
Whilst suffering can span from uncomfortable to excruciating, I know from my own experience, when I look back, the times when i've allowed myself to grow through my pain have been the times when i've learnt the most.
I appreciate that in the midst of suffering, it's very hard to understand what you can learn from it. I don't even think it's possible, and the very notion probably feels offensive.
I don't believe that growth comes from the suffering itself, but rather, the way we respond to it.
I fell in-love with my best friend when I was 17, and choosing to break up with him 5 years later was really hard. In 2016 my boyfriend encouraged me to try going back to church, so I did. I came back to faith and experienced the most radical change in perspective, which I hadn't understood as a child, that I needed to give my life 100% to God - He needed to be my No.1 and my boyfriend was unfortunately too established in his atheist beliefs.
Making the decision to break-up was extremely hard for me, I couldn't imagine life without him, even more so because him and his family had been my stronghold through years of isolation and hospital trips. So, when I made the decision, the pain was so great I had become numb to it.
My counsellor later described it as a 'loss of self' - I had tied my identity to him instead of God and so my body disassociated itself from the situation to protect me from the pain, and I became totally numb. I didn't cry, I could feel my heart breaking but it didn't hurt - it was so bizarre.
Back then I saved a quote that said:
"I'm not happy. I'm not unhappy. I am frozen somewhere in the middle that is so much worse. I am nowhere".
I didn't lean on God when I should have done, instead I leant on a different man, and my decisions led me down a very destructive path, with no empathy nor guilty conscience to help me gauge how my actions impacted others.
A few months later I became desperate to feel again, to cry when it was the right time, to relate to sad moments, happy moments.
I understood the necessity of all our different emotions - I couldn't love others without them.
God tells us that there is a 'time for everything';
'there's a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance'.
- Ecclesiastes 3:4
I knew the only way I could heal was to work through the trauma and seek God with all I had, no matter what I felt.
Without the support around me that I needed, I eventually turned to Christian counselling. This along with repentance (i.e turning away from the things that were between me and God) and reading my bible everyday, everything came to the surface. I would leave those sessions full of shame, regret, anger, hurt etc.
It was so difficult, even more so because I had delayed the healing process.
"our first inclination would be to avoid experiencing sadness (or other negative emotions) in order to be resilient"... "you end up with a huge pile of unprocessed feelings. It’s only a matter of time until the feelings spill out and leave you no choice but to deal with them.” - Zoe Kahn
I really believe that sadness is an important part of healing and that God teaches us that there is a purpose in every season we go through.
I think that it's so important to understand when it's time for us to weep and mourn, to allow that feeling, learning to sit with it, instead of trying to escape it.
God heals us through our sadness
Times of sorrow and grief are often the most difficult times to choose to lean on God, it's rarely the most desirable option at the time. But the bible teaches us that when we decide to put Him first, to steer away from sin, He shepherds us towards healthy healing, which leads to growth.
In 1 Peter 1, Peter wrote to church communities who were persecuted and suffering:
Now for a while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Peter is telling us that in our suffering, we experience 'trials' or 'temptations' - but if the people steer away from those temptations, and towards Jesus, hardships will deepen their faith and make it more genuine.
God teaches us that sadness isn't a negative part of us, and that, under the right circumstances, it is necessary to feel sad.
Sorrow is better than laughter sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. - Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
Here God is telling us that choosing to mourn, to allow the hurt, is wise and that distracting ourselves from the pain and fulfilling our own desires, is foolish.
In the KJV translation, the same verse says 'by the sadness of countenance the heart is made better'. God is teaching us that allowing ourselves to experience sadness is actually healing!
"Growth is about going towards good feelings, not escaping bad ones." - Dr Mark W. Baker.
In my own example, my lack of emotion was really damaging to both myself and others, and my choices to chase my own fulfillment rather than sitting in the house of mourning, where God knew I should be, just delayed the healing process.
I needed to feel the pain to start the healing process.
Joy Malek, marriage and family therapist, said that sadness is
“an expression of the soul, with valuable information about what we’re experiencing and what we need."
It's so important for us to allow ourselves to feel sadness, and recognise when others should be feeling sad too, and supporting them through it. Without it, we cannot heal and grow.
Psychology teaches us that there are emotional patterns to the healing process; Kübler-Ross identified 5 stages of grief within her book 'On Death and Dying'. The process is applied to many different circumstances; from losing a loved one to a changing the way we send emails at work!
Grief is experienced in many different scenarios in life, with varying depths of emotion, but the healing process is the same (click here for more)
So, whilst we may see emotions as unpredictable and in need of control, they are actually a vital part of God's perfect healing process.
He tells us He will heal us, all He asks is that we choose to lean on Him and allow the pain. In order to get the right prescription for the hurt, you need to go to the doctor.
So, in summary:
We can be a wonderful help by simply choosing to sit with others in their pain. Sometimes it's not even saying a word, but showing up for as long as necessary and allowing ourselves to feel awkward.
Work on your own heart for others, to help you empathise with their hurt.
In order to reach healing, we need to understand that there is a time for all emotions and allow ourselves to sit with pain at the right time, rather than trying to cover over it.
Sadness is part of God's perfect healing process, and if we turn to Him in our suffering, He will take care of the healing and lead us towards growth.
No matter what season you are in, I really hope this has helped encourage you that, in the right circumstances, sadness is healthy, and that it's right to sit with our own hurt and with other's - because it produces hope and freedom, just as God promises us!
Lots of love!