“No fixing, saving, advising, or correcting.” This is one of the most important guidelines for group work in the Courage & Renewal retreats I help facilitate. It’s also one of the hardest. At the start of every retreat, we hand out a sheet of ten guidelines – what we call “touchstones” – that provide the structure of belonging for this temporary community. We carefully read each aloud and when we get to the one about “no fixing,” some people in the room let out an audible exhale, while others stiffen in their chairs. How then can we help one another? their furrowed eyes wonder. For a time, we tell participants, our task is not to be helpful – or useful or even edifying, as Christians are wont to do. Our task, as theologian Nell Morton put it, is rather “to hear each other into speech.”
That attentiveness alone gives others the permission they need to speak the unspeakable is perhaps nowhere more true than in the seascape of grief. My new friend Jonalyn Fincher and co-author Aubrie Hills have written a book to help grievers and their companions alike navigate the foggy waters of despair. Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well acts like a quiet compass to its reader, telling stories about the authors’ own experiences of loss, using Scripture in fresh ways that say “look” rather than “do,” and ending each section with a list of gentle questions and practices to explore. (I especially loved the art-house movie suggestions.) Below is one of my favorite excerpts from the book on the difference between curing comfort and caring comfort:
We cannot begin to grieve if we are our own first critics. How much compassion do we have for ourselves when suffering? What about our friends? We cannot freely share our pain if every suffering statement finds a response in someone’s curing, fixing attempts at comfort. We each must re-learn how to speak about and respond to loss.
When Jonalyn’s son was two, he would re-tell any personal injury, drumming up an audience to live through the tragedy he just endured. “Do you remember?” he would begin. “I bumped my head. Bam! Right here. Look, right here. Bang!” He replayed it for his parents, step by painful step.
If Jonalyn said, “But how do you feel now? Any better?” he would briefly nod only to explain it again. Prompting him to feel better was evidence to him that he wasn’t fully understood. Any listener would then be subjected to another re-enactment. When a new person came to visit, he would claim this new audience to tell his story again. Two year olds are like their parents: they do not want curing comfort, they want caring comfort. They want attentive listeners who care to hear the details of their suffering.
If we are in pain, we want someone skilled at our side. We don’t want the distancing work of sympathy (“Oh, you poor thing!”) or the rushing work of impatience (“Are you still grieving?”). We want the empathy of silence. All sufferers, from the biblical Job to our suffering Messiah, want comfort in the form of listening and tears, prayers and attentiveness.
To tell the stories of our lives we must become skilled in telling our pain. Even if our circle of friends treat our pain as alien, suffering proves we are human, that we belong to this blue planet. We recommend hunting for worthy audiences, for all good stories need an audience that can weep and laugh and let their eyes grow round in shock. We need to develop the ears of a focused audience and the re-telling enthusiasm of a two year old.
When people are discerning the most unnerving experiences of life, as they often are in the safe space of a retreat or the unyielding waves of grief, we are tempted to think that our “resource-sharing skills” would be more helpful than our “attention-sharing skills.” We are tempted to forget that God is the only one skilled in the lasting fix we need.
But that God alone does the saving does not mean we do nothing, say nothing, when navigating grief. For those of us who fancy ourselves good listeners, the harder lesson might be to become good story-tellers. After reading the above excerpt, I’m reminded how unskilled I am at asking for the attention I need, instead withholding my hopelessness from friends rather than sharing it over and over again with the relentless faith of a two-year-old.
I may even hear myself into healing.
What skills do you want/need/use to “grieve well”? What skills have others shared in order to “hear you into speech”? Jonalyn has graciously offered to interact with comments in the section below.