"Good grief" used to be a favorite exclamation of Charlie Brown, the unlucky main character in the Peanuts cartoon. Perhaps he has learned what many people know. There is no such thing as good grief. Different people experience grief in different ways, but no one enjoys it.
Grief can be surprising. It is surprising how much grief hurts. It's not just the metaphorical "heartache" of sorrow. There's real pain — difficulty in breathing, inability to sleep, gut-wrenching feelings of loss and emptiness, lack of appetite to the point that food is sickening. This list goes on and on.
Even after the sorrow gets a bit better, grief attacks unexpectedly, wrenchingly. Special days and events open doors for it: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. So do pictures, special places, smells and sounds. It is sneaky. It still hurts just as much as it did at the beginning. Survivors learn to expect it on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, but it still comes "out of the blue" at times.
It is surprising how grief lasts. The notion that survivors will be "over it" in a month — as many people expect — is just plain wrong. So is the designation of a year as the time for mourning, which was the customary expectation in the past. The wisest words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross were, "You never get over it."
It does get better. Over time, it comes to consume less of the mind and heart. But the emptiness, the "goneness" is a part of the survivor as surely as the loved one was a part before the loss. Empty beds, chairs, places at the table and conversations are constant reminders, thus grief makers.
My late, much loved friend Vivian Anderson Mobley, herself a widow for many years, had good advice. "Stay busy, Rog. Stay busy." Doing beneficial things for self and others is creative and healthy and keeps the mind occupied against the realization of "goneness." If you can find a way to get to where you need to be, there are many things for you to do and be.
It is surprising how dumb some other people are. They do not mean to say and do hurtful things. Mostly, they want to be kind and helpful. They are unaware of the golden value of quietness and a caring presence.
"He (or she) is in a better place," as many often say. Usually it is true. But the mourners are hurting, thus driven in on themselves, and are in a bad place. Even realizing that the lost loved one is better off without the suffering, a survivor might want to cry out, "But what about me?" In the words of an old song, "What'll I do?"
"It's the Lord's will." That piece of pious piffle has always bothered me. As an example of "permissive will" — as opposed to "purposive will" — it works theologically, but few people ever get into that discussion. More importantly, a grieving person might conclude that God for some reason has killed the loved one. That is terrible theology, alien to the gospel of grace taught and embodied by Christ.
"I know just how you feel. My aunt died last year and I cried." Why do people say things like that? Some even make a lost pet the point of comparison! Parents, children and spouses have been central to the hearts, the very selves of those in grief. Maybe those who try to comfort with silly comparisons are just trying to find something to say, but "I am so sorry" works better. Frankly, if you do know how they feel, it will be something learned through hard experience and will show in your eyes.
Some parents, grieving over the death of a small child, have heard, "You are still young; you can have another." Whether they can have another child or not, that is irrelevant. People are not ball bearings, everyone the same. What has been lost is this child. Irreplaceable. Another will be different. This is true, even in the case of stillbirths because during gestation, parents begin to give identity to the unborn child. He or she becomes a person to them.
My paternal grandmother, Sally Wilkes Branch, bore 11 children. Two were stillborn and two, Hattie and Grady, died as toddlers. Decades after Hattie died, I remember Grandmother saying wistfully, "That child had the bluest eyes I've ever seen." She bore several children after Hattie, but Hattie had the "bluest eyes." Since they were bluer than my Daddy's, they must have been remarkable.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.