Grief Observed: Reactions to Tragedy

Much has been said in the immediate aftermath of the tragic news of Matthew Warren’s death.  I don’t know the Warrens personally and have no special insight into their situation; I grieve for their terrible loss and pray they will find themselves awash in that peace that goes way past any human understanding.

You are likely aware that there has been a strong and polarized reaction in the realm of social media to the tragedy–and then a strong and polarized reaction to the reaction.  I don’t really want to add to the noise, except to take a deep breath and ask what sorts of responses to tragedies of various kinds might be genuinely constructive, redemptive and healing. In an excellent post entitled “Rick Warren’s grief: the comfort and cruelty of speculating on suicide,” Kristen Howerton notes that, quite apart from those “commentators” who are exploiting the Warren’s personal tragedy to make political and religious statements, there are other well-meaning observers who can’t help but try to “make sense” of the tragedy and “figure out what went wrong.”  She notes:

When we hear about grieving parents it can be so tempting to try to assign blame, because if they aren’t to blame, then we have to grapple with the reality that sometimes, tragedy is senseless.

I grappled with this same impulse (both in myself and in people who tried to “help”) to subconsciously assign blame a few years ago during a particularly difficult season with my parents (both of whom were very ill at the time).  Back then, I took to the internet and asked folks to share the most–and least–helpful responses to suffering they’d encountered. In light of the week’s events, I thought I’d share those observations again here.

(Important updates: Since first writing this piece, my dad passed away, while my mother’s cancer is now in remission.)

Allow for Space in the Music

(Originally published in the April, 2010 Christianity Today, now available in the ebook: Theology in Aisle Seven)

Acknowledging the mystery of pain.

Eighteen months ago, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and my father’s rare neurological disease took a hairpin turn for the worse. Their busy lives dissolved into months of treatments, complications, and worst-case scenarios.

Caring for them has been my first real experience with prolonged suffering. I had no clue about the malaise that can spawn from the union of chronic pain and diminished hope. My parents have been heroic. But they have also groped for the meaning of their pain and its remedy, and have found neither.

Through it all I have tried to offer comfort, and I’ve watched others do the same. Sometimes our words have been balms. Sometimes they have been hand grenades.

I recently asked friends online what words and actions had been the least helpful in trying times, and I got a passionate and prolific response. I recognized many of the platitudes listed as things that had come out of my mouth.

Many responses fell into a category I call “Invalidation of the Present Pain.” With a bombastic mix of well-meaning fervor and unconscious impatience, we attempt to rush our wounded friend to closure. Classics include “It will all work out in the end,” “Time heals all wounds,” and glib recitations of Romans 8:28.

Many of those responses are wonderfully true. But so is Jesus’ observation that it’s those who mourn who are comforted (Matt. 5:4). He knew better than anyone the Happy Ending that awaits us, yet he was deeply respectful of the pain of our present condition. John 11:35 tells us that when Jesus’ friend died, he wept; the Greek word refers to a passionate outpouring of grief. So perhaps it is more Christlike to feel pain rather than to try to expedite it.

Other replies revealed what I call “Formula Thinking,” an assumption that a uniform explanation can be applied to all suffering. We believe affliction is either discipline from God or an attack from Satan, and that the right degree of repentance—or faith—will turn things around.

The idea that God blesses the good and punishes the bad, and that circumstances line up accordingly, is antithetical to the stories of New Testament believers. (It was also the error of Job’s well-meaning friends.) It provides the illusion that we can control outcomes. When people are in pain, we reflexively look for something to blame, so we can avoid that variable and keep out of harm’s way. Tragically, our judgments are often salt in our friends’ wounds.

Still other responses fell into what I call the “Forced Meaning” reactions. “God has a reason for everything,” we claim, and then we try to ram horrible tragedies into redemptive molds—suggesting that cancer, rape, and earthquakes are wake-up calls, strange expressions of grace in God’s epic story. But does the Haitian mother holding her child’s mangled body really have a chance of finding comfort in this platitude? Is it true?

Scripture reveals a sovereign God actively working in human events, but it also speaks clearly of free will and its consequences. I cannot begin to fathom the tension between the two. But I do believe that most of our suffering is the result of brokenness, and that God is more interested in reconciling all things to himself than in blowing them apart. Yes, God brings good out of tragedy (it’s one of his specialties), but that doesn’t mean he necessarily engineered the horrors.

After the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, theologian David Bentley Hart responded eloquently to the Forced Meaning bias, saying that Christians shouldn’t “console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or … assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.”

So what can we say in times of trouble? I asked my friends what responses had helped them the most, and their replies reminded me of a piece of advice attributed to Miles Davis: “Think of a note and don’t play it.” As a musician, I understand—allow for space in the music, don’t always rush in, and listen. As a friend and a daughter, I’m starting to get it, too. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is think of a truth and embody it rather than say it. When we long to tell a hurting friend that she’s not alone, we can simply sit with her as a tangible reminder that she isn’t. When we want to reassure a struggling family that God cares for them, a well-timed casserole can demonstrate that very fact. Only when we acknowledge the present pain—and the mysteries that likely shroud its cause—do we earn the right to affirm God’s goodness in the midst of it.

And only when we mourn—for ourselves, for each other, and for a world groaning for redemption—can we be comforted … and be a comfort.



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