Mourning with Those Who Mourn

August 21, 2008 | 36 comments
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So I’m at the pool last week with someone I really like but don’t know all that well and we’re kvetching about grocery prices, etc., when out of nowhere she says, “So I know you lost a baby daughter last winter. How are you doing with that?”

All of the air was gone. But why? I’ve honestly felt OK for many months now–why am I tearing up? I do a quick mental scan–no, I really am at peace with what happened. I tell her that. But I’m still glad that I have sunglasses on so she won’t see the leakage and think I’m lying and crying. Why am I about to cry, anyway?

I had to think about it for awhile. It’s because she asked. Because virtually no one has asked. And then I’m thinking: she was either really brave or really foolish to ask–I mean, really, she doesn’t know me that well and a question like that could very well mean a meltdown and all of a sudden you are sitting in nine inches of water right next to the slide that looks like a frog’s tongue and a grown woman is blubbering and her shoulders are heaving and she’s getting snot everywhere and you have to deal with her. I didn’t do that, but for all she knew, I very well could have. Why would she risk that?

She did, though. The subtext was, “If you need to melt, I’ll mop you up. If you need to vent, I’ll take it. If you need to fall apart, I’ll put you back together again.”

I didn’t need to melt or vent or fall that day, but it meant the world to me that she would have dealt with it if I did.

It is ironic, I suppose, that I’ve never found scriptures or theology to be of any use during grief. Maybe if you didn’t know, then knowing would help. But if you do know, and someone is reminding you, it seems too much as if they are trying to solve the grief for you: “See? You’ll be together again. So it’s OK.” It’s not OK, even if it will be OK later.

Maybe that’s why Jesus cried even when he knew he was going to raise Lazarus in just a few more verses.

36 Responses to Mourning with Those Who Mourn

  1. Rachel on August 21, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you.

  2. Ray on August 21, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    “I didn’t need to melt or vent or fall that day, but it meant the world to me that she would have dealt with it if I did.”

    Wonderful insight – and wonderful post.

    From something I wrote in February on this exact topic, edited slightly for this post:

    1) We shouldn’t limit our comforting and mourning to only those situations where no one else is around to provide it (or for only the short time after it initially is needed). Even if it appears that “everything is being taken care of” (or has been taken care of) we still should give whatever we can – even if it only ends up being a token of the fact that we really do care. People who are grieving or mourning or need comfort need to know that everyone around them cares about them; getting help from only the first few who happen to see the need simply isn’t enough. In a very real way, mourning and comforting is ideally a community activity – not just one that is isolated to a few.

    2) There is too much formality and structure sometimes to how we interact with each other. Sometimes we simply need a hug and a shoulder upon which to cry.

  3. Tom on August 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I’m kind of surprised that you appreciated the inquiry. I figure it’s one of those areas where you tread lightly and only talk about it if the other person brings it up. My wife will sometimes ask people those kinds of questions about sensitive things and I’m always cringing a little bit thinking that people don’t want to talk about it. I don’t really have any reason to think that, though. I know my wife’s intention is to be a support and a friend and I know she would appreciate it if people asked her about those sorts of things. So I guess I just need to stop cringing inside and be proud that my wife is a saint.

  4. tkangaroo on August 21, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    We recently studied the lesson on this in Relief Society. I was pretty sure it would be all about looking for th scriptures and not really mourning because we know the truth, but it wasn’t. Our teacher was brave. She wanted us to ask the hard questions, and she wanted us to feel. After losing many people in my life, I understood the pain. It was interesting to tackle it head on–to talk about not being afraid of others’ pain and being willing to truly mourn with them. It was a very moving and uplifting moment where I truly loved all the sisters in the room despite at one moment or other thinking that many of them rarely think deper than the wading pool (I know–straight to hell). I cried because I understood that sometimes you don’t want to talk about it. And sometimes it is enough that people acknowledge your pain and that you do not have to just “get over it.”

    I found it incredibly funny (funny-sad, not really funny-ha-ha) that the Elders’ Quorum in our singles’ ward also studied the same lesson–and most of them thought the lesson was on the resurrection (my little brother was visiting, so I pried). How sad that they weren’t ready to tackle the depth of emotion it took for our teacher to truly make us feel as well as think.

  5. Nathan Bunker on August 21, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Wow, great post. I’ve been scared to ask people about personal things that have happened to them, afraid I might offend. And sometimes I ask and it doesn’t go so well. But there have been times that I’ve asked and they have just been waiting to talk about it. And that’s all you can really do is listen well, and be a part of it. There are too many times I have been afraid and have not asked. I am seeing more and more that being a saint includes making mistakes while trying your best to help other people. Thank you for your story. I think it will help me to worry less about offending and just ask!

  6. Margaret Young on August 21, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Julie–my daughter gave birth yesterday to a beautiful boy. But two days before this miracle, she learned about a friend of hers who was in a serious plane accident and burned over 80% of her body. The flight instructor died, but this young woman (mother of four) is still alive. Her husband, also in the crash, is expected to recover. My daughter and I shed many tears over this, and were still talking about it during labor. I’ve wanted to invite members of the bloggernacle to share this family’s burden. You can read about ways to help at this blog.

    Do read what the sister of the flight instructor contributed. It is deeply moving.

  7. Julie M. Smith on August 21, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Tom, now I’m worried that I’ve given the green light for people to ask, “So–how’s your infertility?” or “Is your husband still addicted to porn?”

    There’s a huge need for discernment here.

  8. Jim F. on August 21, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Beautiful piece, Julie. Thank you.

  9. Shelly on August 21, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    ‘“If you need to melt, I’ll mop you up. If you need to vent, I’ll take it. If you need to fall apart, I’ll put you back together again.”

    I didn’t need to melt or vent or fall that day, but it meant the world to me that she would have dealt with it if I did.’

    We are always so concerned over what we say that we bypass what our hears urge us to say or do. Her words and action were heroic. Your words and reaction were so profound.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. iguacufalls on August 21, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Caring is NEVER a bad thing. Being sensitive is NEVER a bad thing. What’s bad is assuming a person’s problems are no big deal. What’s bad is feeling like they can get through it with no problem on their own. People need people, whether they think so or not.

    We recently (2 years ago) adopted 3 little boys with severe emotional/behavioral issues. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “oh my kid does that!” when we’ve tried to explain a specific behavior as an example of our trials to others in the ward. Only a couple of people have asked caring questions and shown concern. Like most people, we’re not looking to monopolize anyone’s time, burdening others with our problems, but it would be nice if people actually cared about each other. I’m not saying that I’m perfect at this myself, by any means, but my experience has led me to try to listen a little closer when people talk about themselves and ask leading questions, inviting them to open up if they choose.

  11. Alison Moore Smith on August 21, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I’m so glad you responded to her question the way you did! We really need, I think, to be open to those who are TRYING to mourn with us in their own ways…even it they aren’t OUR ways. Who cares? They care enough to try.

    Over the course of having my six kids, we lost five. It was just nice when someone cared enough to do anything at all.

    Of course, chocolate is always good…

  12. ZD Eve on August 21, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Beautiful post, Julie.

    I don’t do at well in mourning with those that mourn. I tend to feel easily uncomfortable and overwhelmed in even relatively relaxed social situations, let alone in situations like this one that require an exquisite combination of discernment, tact, and directness. Too often I’ve just passed the suffering by on the other side of the road because I’m too afraid of saying the wrong thing. But your post, and the woman you describe, inspire me to try.

  13. Lupita on August 22, 2008 at 12:10 am

    After I miscarried, an acquaintance approached me and said she’d heard (through another member of the ward) that I was having a hard time with it. At the time I was completely irate–of course I was having a hard time with it! As time has passed, I’ve realized that the poor woman was likely just socially awkward and probably didn’t mean that I should’ve bounced back immediately. For all I know, she may have lost multiple pregnancies and had better coping mechanisms or something.
    I am glad that someone asked and meant it. It’s wonderful to feel loved.

  14. fMhlisa on August 22, 2008 at 12:42 am

    What a lovely post. It is so difficult to figure out how to mourn with others, and so difficult too sometimes to let people in to mourn with us. But we really need it, we really need each other in this crazy fallen world. I’m so glad you have a friend like this, I hope I can be a friend like this.

  15. sister blah 2 on August 22, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Beautiful, Julie.

  16. Tom on August 22, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Julie (#7),
    Don’t worry. I almost put in a disclaimer that my wife knows that there are certain topics that are off limits. It’s not those things that I was talking about being uncomfortable with; it’s stuff along the lines of your post and less sensitive things.

  17. Gerald Smith on August 22, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks, Julie.

    Like with Katrina, it is easy for everyone to rush over with a meal for the first week or two. But often the struggles are there long afterward, though they may not show on the surface.
    I wish we could somehow train more of our members on how to comfort others, and to not stop being a comfort until the need is filled. It isn’t always enough to do something, but rather it is everything to do enough.

  18. Researcher on August 22, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    A few thoughts on the sentence from the original post: “Because virtually no one has asked.”

    One of the families in our ward had a similar situation a while back. We took their kids for a few days at the time, which was not much of a service since our kids get along so nicely and we’d be happy to adopt them (and certain of my kids would be happier to live over there than at our house). However, I didn’t talk to the mother at the time about the loss. All conversations on the subject were carried on with her husband and children.

    Talking to her about her baby has briefly crossed my mind several times. Now that I’ve read your post and had a chance to think about it for a day, I’m wondering why, exactly, I’ve never talked to her about her experience. I don’t mind sobbing people (except in sacrament meeting), so that’s not a factor. I can’t imagine that she doesn’t think about the baby regularly if not constantly, so the thought of opening an old wound is not a factor. They are rather private and super busy people, so perhaps the perception that bringing up the subject at a time that she might not prefer to be emotional is the main barrier to a potential conversation. Perhaps I should let her know that I do care and think about her and her baby and hope that she’s doing well. That’s an easy enough thing to say and she’s actually so unlikely to fall apart that it’s actually also a safe thing to say.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Julie, and I also hope you’re doing well.

    PS I agree on your thoughts about not trotting out doctrine to someone in grief. We know where to find it when we need it and it’s not something that’s appropriate to force-feed.

  19. The Right Trousers on August 22, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    What? You mean you can’t forcibly comfort someone? Is this a joke?

    If the sting of death ain’t swallowed up in Christ, there’s something wrong with you. What grievin’ folk need is PREACHIN’!

  20. shirleye.faciane on August 23, 2008 at 12:19 am

    recently widowed,and at age 84 survived two adult sons, and many other\’s..life is full of pain and sorrow, and who says we can\’t sing, cry laugh..and enjoy hugs by the million,…and remembering!!…yes i ask, and an overwhelmed when others ask me even its on the phone to talk..we are all different, but this is what we need to do.
    thanks,
    Shirley

  21. NOYDMB on August 23, 2008 at 12:28 am

    Thank you for sharing something so personal and moving Julie, and reminding us all to care more about our fellowSaints.

    One word of warning to tkangaroo. While I’m glad that you had such a wonderful lesson in your relief society, and I’m saddened that your younger brother did not feel incredibly uplifted by his lesson in Elder’s Quorum, I have often noticed a severe disconnect for those not present in a lesson to decry it as horrible based on one viewpoint. Quite frankly, unless you have probed every member who was there, and they honestly answered, and told you that no one else was uplifted, it would be awful arrogant to say, “We learned more than the Elders.” Just like it would be awfully arrogant of me to think, “Awe, the sisters talked for 40 minutes about Sister McConkie’s engagment, how sad that they weren’t able to learn about the resurrection like the Elder’s.” It is awful arrogant to assume you know that other’s did not get out of the lesson that they should (however, your brother might not have).

  22. Floyd the Wonderdog on August 23, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Often we don’t know what to say to those who are mourning. Just say you love them and care about them.

  23. Julie M. Smith on August 23, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for your comment, shirleye.faciane.

  24. Barbara on August 23, 2008 at 11:20 am

    What a beautiful sentiment. It\’s the listening, isn\’t it?

  25. annegb on August 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    You know, Julie, as I read the first couple of sentences, I thought your friend was brave to approach the subject, but then I thought your point was how tactlessly she did it and I felt like a moron.

    There is a scripture that has helped me, validated me. It’s King David’s lament, “O my son, would God I had died for thee.”

    I ALWAYS mention heartache others have experienced to them because I believe we all need to be validated in our pain, much more than we have a need for privacy. I’m advocating for discretion, of course, but so many people are living lives of quiet desperation because people are afraid to bring something up.

    For instance, I’ll just say, “How are you? I’m so sorry about what happened.” And if they don’t want to talk, that’s it. If they do, boy, I just shut up and listen because I’ve learned people need to talk. I’ve also found in each circumstance of tragedy or struggle in my life, there has been one or two persons who I could talk to, lean on, feel safe with. Those who tried and I didn’t feel that way, I was polite, but discouraged a conversation.

    I’m glad you felt your friend had good intentions. I’ve also had some crass comments and really insensitive people speak to me. The way you related this conversation, it could have been either way—an idiot asking after your child the same way she’d ask about an addition to your home—or someone who was willing to risk the relationship to reach out to you and let you know she cared.

    I don’t remember hearing about your baby, Julie, I’m truly sorry.

  26. Julie M. Smith on August 23, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    “I thought your friend was brave to approach the subject, but then I thought your point was how tactlessly she did it and I felt like a moron.”

    You were right the first time–she was brave. The point of the post is that if you have to choose between tact (although maybe that’s not the right word–maybe ‘timing’ is) and being open to someone’s grief, choose being open. (Of course, as you say, there’s a big need for discretion, too.)

  27. Markie on August 23, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Julie. There is a woman in my ward who lost her newborn baby right around the same time I had my daughter. I never called her or talked to her about this (although I spent weeks sobbing over it) because I rationalized that I was the last person she wanted to talk to because she might feel like I was rubbing my healthy baby in her face. Talk about patronizing hogwash! Anyway, after I realized how stupid I was being, I just felt like too much time had gone by to bring it up in a natural way, but I think about it all the time. You’ve inspired me to do something about it and say something (at an appropriate time). Thank you.

  28. Idahospud on August 24, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Thank you, Julie.

    I have a friend who gave birth to a full-term but stillborn son the day after Christmas six years ago. I always call her on that date to tell her I’m thinking of her. She tells me that I am the only person who ever, ever asks and gives her a chance to talk about her baby if she wants to. You are right that it takes both bravery and discretion, and I usually side with discretion in most cases, but her comments and your post make me want to reach out more. Thank you.

  29. annegb on August 24, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Dates are important.

  30. Jim Cobabe on August 24, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I am always better prepared in suffering and grief to be receptive to preaching — within limits of reason. Nobody can deal with the immediacy of pain and desperate mourning, and want much preaching at the same time. Messages of comfort and hope are better suited for a little later, as part of the recovery process.

  31. P. K. Andersen on August 24, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    A big obstacle to comforting others is the desire to say something that will make everything all right again.

    That desire may cause one to blurt out something trite or stupid or offensive.

    The first thing is to realize that some losses can only be endured—nothing anyone can say will assuage the grief. Often friends can help more by their presence than their words.

  32. Jim Cobabe on August 24, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    PK Anderson speaks wisdom. I was recently hospitalized with a most distressing health problem. Those that attended in silence perhaps offered the most heartfelt support and good will. Thanks to my silent friends for standing by during the worst part of the crises.

  33. Sarah on August 27, 2008 at 1:38 am

    I lost a baby, too. I can’t agree with you more. Nothing makes me prouder than to talk about her and her short life and how she affected me. However, it never occured to me to ask about people’s grief before I had my own experience with it. It felt like prying into someone else’s private emotions. Now I try to say a kind word, ask a question, or, as many have already said, just say, “I’m sorry,” or, “That must have been hard.” I truly am sorry for anyone who has to go through the pain of grief. It is refreshing and healing to have someone be concerned enough with how I’m feeling to look past their own insecurities and let me talk about my beautiful girl.

  34. Robert C. on August 27, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Julie, very nice piece. I think the point you are making can in fact be put in theological terms, but in a rather anti-systematic way. For example, I think what Jim F. writes in his “Rethinking Theology” article argues for a position that is consistent with yours: a theodicy that explains away evil misses the point of evil, which is a call to struggle against evil, to mourn with those that mourn, etc., etc.

  35. christopher johnson on August 28, 2008 at 12:31 am

    This was my favorite thing to say to overly perky EFY counselors as a teenager.
    EFYC: “How are you?”
    me: “Good.”
    EFYC: “Why not great?”
    me: “Um. Because I’m mourning with those that mourn.”
    (Then both of us then would have a synchronized, contemptuous brow furrowing.)

  36. Kathym on August 29, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    This post has helped me with something that perplexed me. As I sat in the lesson about death/mourning, I wept the entire time. For the life of me, I couldn\’t figure out why on earth that was happening. I thought about my dear grandparents who have passed, and the baby that I miscarried, and the friends that I have lost. I, too, quickly ran that mental scan as to whether I was really at peace, and found that I was. Yet, I was still sitting there with tears rolling down my face. As an easy cryer, none of my regular distractions were working and I sat there embarassed, as people handed me tissues. It clicked as I\’ve thought about it and read this post that I simply miss all my loved ones. The separation hurts and the time that has passed really doesn\’t make that pain go away. It is the willingness of that sister who sat near me to pat the seat beside her, inviting me to have a sheltering arm around my shoulder (that I foolishly declined, but that\’s another problem altogether) that reminds me that I\’m not alone and that the gospel is a team effort.