Mourning with those who mourn

I write this as a room full of nursery-aged children jump and dance to The Wiggles. The reason is that for Family Home Evening tonight, a group of our friends has gathered at the home of another friend whose mother died in an accident this weekend. While the family is away at the funeral, our group is cleaning the house and taking care of any other needs there. I’m in charge of the child care at our house so that the parents can go clean without the kids making a mess behind them.

When my wife and I first heard the sad news, our first reaction was to try to find something we could do to help. We made a casserole, but it seemed like there should be something else we could do. Kristen called a friend who had also gone through the pain of losing a parent suddenly, and the friend told her there wasn’t anything specific that could be done, just offer support.

Thinking about this reminded me of another sad time in one of our friends’ lives. This friend lost her baby very late in her pregnancy. We heard the news as she was in labor in the hospital to deliver the baby stillborn. We felt helpless as our hearts cried out for her.

Kristen had another friend who had delivered a stillborn child recently, and recalled that she had told her the most comforting gift that was given to her was a lace receiving blanket that she could wrap her child’s body in. They had blessed the child, and it was a comfort to have something beautiful to use in performing that ordinance, and for the baby to have something that was her own and belonged to her in this world.

We searched through our baby blankets and found a pretty white lace blanket that would be suitable for a baby blessing. Kristen drove it to the hospital and dropped it off. When she got back home, we spent some time struggling with our own feelings and emotions.

Later, we learned that the blanket had been exactly the right thing to send. Hospitals are not necessarily designed to be places of great comfort. The blanket served as a reminder that the baby, though stillborn, was coming into a family, and deserved to be greeted with some token of welcoming The mother had something to remind her how beautiful her child was. The blanket allowed the baby to be presented as reverently as any other as the father gave her a name and a blessing.

I learned something about service that night. One of the blessings that can come from our own adversity can be an increased ability to help others in their hour of need. Kristen likely would not have thought to act as she did had she not had a conversation with her other friend about her experience.

I share this story as I think about my friend’s loss of his mother in the hope that I can rid myself of some of the feelings of helplessness I feel by passing on knowledge that I hope might help someone else through one of you. If others have stories they would like to share that may help the rest of us serve those of our brothers and sisters who mourn or struggle, I invite you to share them here. I recognize that such stories may be difficult to share, however. If anonymity helps, that option is available here.

14 comments for “Mourning with those who mourn

  1. Perhaps equally as important as sharing stories of how to serve is sharing experiences of how not to serve. One of the most difficult problems of service is knowing how our actions will be received. It is certainly possible to be of greater harm than good in trying to help, out of a simple inability to understand what a person is feeling. I don’t want this to be an entirely negative thread, but a well-placed word of warning can be a service as well.

  2. Great topic, Bryce. I remember a time of great trial in our family where a sister really made a difference. My only child, a boy, was about to graduate from nursery and become a Sunbeam. We’d been preparing him all year for this so he’d be excited about going to Big Primary. We had introduced him to his teacher –a wonderful single sister who loved her Sunbeams– and were waiting for “2 Sundays after Santa comes” the first Sunday of the new year.

    Ten weeks before that could happen, he was diagnosed with cancer and started chemo almost immediately. I remember so well the doctor describing dealing with a child on chemo and the dangers that came from being around large groups of people, especially children. I was seeing Primary in my mind’s eye as he said that and knew that there was no way he could risk attending. In fact, he ordered that my son not attend church (except for maybe one meeting if we sprayed the pew with Lysol and left before the meeting ended) for the first year.

    That first Sunday in the New Year I went to church (my wife and I had to take turns) and the Sunbeam teacher asked me if it was even possible for her to come over and give him his Primary lesson. We discussed what it would take to do so (not being sick, washing hands, wearing a surgical mask if his immune system was too weak) and she agreed to try.

    But as if that wasn’t enough, she asked if she could do it from 4pm to 6pm each Sunday. I told her I thought that two hours was well above and beyond the call. She replied that that if she stayed the two hours, she figured that my wife and I could then attend ward choir practice at 4:30 together. I can’t describe to you how deeply moved I was that she thought about our needs that way. Attending choir the only church thing we could do outside the 3-hour block for that entire first year. It was the only thing we got to do together outside our home, for one of us had to be co-isolated at all times. That Sister faithfully served us until the point that my son’s health improved enough to start attending Primary with his class.

    Someday, we are all going to stand before our maker at the judgment seat. If witnesses to our behavior are allowed to be called I hope to be first in line to testify on behalf of this Sister who truly served our family. Because of her, my son got to be a Sunbeam.

    But then again, the Savior already knows.

  3. Chad too–

    Thank you. My thread is a success even if no one else responds. I feel humbled by the example of your son’s Sunbeam teacher.

  4. I’ve been thinking about these things to–I agreed to be the chair of the Parent Association at my children’s school this year, thinking it would be mostly just running meetings and coordinating volunteers. But last week, one of the eight graders in the school was hit and killed by a train as he rode his bicycle to school, and suddenly my little volunteer gig included calling several dozen families to explain what had happened so that they wouldn’t hear it first on the evening news. Five days after that, the mother of another student died of cancer, after a very long fight (10 years). It’s a tiny school, only about 10 students in each grade, so all the families are very close, and it feels like the whole school has been engulfed by a tidal wave of grief.

    There are things to do. I didn’t know either family well, so I’ve been doing lots and lots of cooking and coordinating of meal deliveries. Food seems like such a powerful reminder that life is going on–so physical and primal and such a basic symbol of caring. I used to make fun of Relief Society casseroles, when I was younger and stupider. Now I get it. I know that there are dozens of acts of service to these families happening every day, the kinds of thoughtful things that Bryce and Chad describe, and it is deeply nourishing just to observe this service.

    But sometimes there is also nothing to do. Part of the reason I love the scripture from which Bryce takes his title is that it distinguishes between mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort. Sometimes comfort is neither needed nor possible. Sometimes the only thing to do is embrace each other and weep.

  5. Chad Too: Thank you. I hope you son is OK.

    Bryce: I really like this post. Mormonism makes sense to me on many levels, but the most fundamental part of my belief came naturally as a result of watching the adults I grew up around go the extra mile in serving the needs of people who were poor, or sick, or had suffered a tragedy.

  6. Thank you all for asking about my son. He is very well now, a strapping second-grader who has the 8th grade girls at school eating out of the palm of his hand. Puberty’s going to be a real kick, I can tell already.

    Chemo ended about two years ago and we haven’t had any problems since.

  7. Bryce, sorry to get here late; I’ve been trying to decide what I want to add. When I was thirteen, my 3-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer; when I was fifteen, he died. During this time my mother gave birth to her eighth child. We were the recipients of truly innumerable acts of service and kindness–everything from the ubiquitous lasagna dinners, to driving various children to music lessons, to overtime babysitting, to providing special outings for siblings, to regular ward fasts and prayers. We were greateful for everything. Some of the most meaningful kindnesses came afterward–one sister in the ward remembers the anniversary of Jacob’s death every year, and sends flowers to my mother in commemoration, going on fifteen years now.

    As for what *not* to say or do–I guess I’d advise against trying to speak words of comfort to the bereaved, because it’s difficult to know what will comfort and what will cut. “He’s happier now,” or “This has drawn your family so close together,” or “Aren’t you glad families are forever,” while undoubtedly true, can be very painful for some to hear at certain points in the grieving process. Acts of comfort are far more powerful. Let the bereaved find the way to peace. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to talk about Jacob–on the contrary, I loved to talk about him, and his short life, and I was grateful for those who gave me that opportunity and shared what they remembered of him. Also, remember that bereavement takes much longer to overcome than anyone can anticipate; don’t expect someone to get over it in a year, or two.

    My daughter is three year old now, Jacob’s age when he was diagnosed, and almost daily I think about how I could survive her serious illness or death. I’m so grateful that my parents had at least a little more life experience at their moment of trial; I think it really helped.

  8. Hospitals are not necessarily designed to be places of great comfort.

    Isn’t that the truth.

    The most abusive thing I see is people trying to insist on words of comfort that are shallow, self-serving and paltry — and insisting that what they’ve said solves everything. Like the individual who started badgering my wife in the halls at church two weeks after our second child died, insisting that now that she had heard his comments, she should acknowledge that she was over it all.

    Someone else’s tragedy does not exist to feed your feelings of superiorty and self satisfaction. It really doesn’t.

    But then again, the Savior already knows.

    Indeed. As he knows my home teachers (I went several years without them, starting with Jessica’s death). Sigh.

    At least it wasn’t like when we lived in Alaska and we got a home teacher who felt that God had called him to hound my mother out of the Church (my Dad had been sent to Viet Nam and this dear brother felt that it was his duty to drive us off lest we become a burden to the ward and those of better spiritual quality).

    Being avoided is much better than being harassed and hounded.

    Been a long day.

    Well written post and comments above. Sorry I’m not up to adding more.

  9. Ethesis (Stephen M)–

    Your poetry that you linked to in another thread has been enormously helpful to me in recognizing how little I really know about what you and others like you have gone through in dealing with loss.

  10. Kristine–

    Thanks for your comment. One of the things I fear most about potential priesthood leadership callings is that I don’t know how well I would handle a situation like the one you’ve had to handle. I suppose the Lord supports those he calls, but not being in that position right now myself, I have great doubts as to my ability to support and comfort others.

  11. Rosalynde–

    I appreciate your taking time to reflect on what you might share here. I didn’t expect a lot of comment, to be honest. It’s a lot easier to dash off something in response to a hot political topic than it is to come up with something that does justice to the kinds of emotions and feelings that I invited in making this post.

    I’m glad you mentioned the sister who still sends flowers fifteen years later. I’m afraid that too often I think of losing a child as something that people “get over” after a while because out of necessity they go on with their lives, even though I know that of all the people I know who have had to endure such a loss, none of them have ever really gotten over it, at least not in the way I understand it.

  12. “‘Hospitals are not necessarily designed to be places of great comfort.’

    Isn’t that the truth.”

    Fortunately, the showers in the hospital rooms are loud enough that you can cry out loud without your son overhearing. I took some very long showers in 1999-2000. Hospitals never run out of hot water.

    Stephen, I’m sorry to hear of your home teachers’ indifference. I was going to post more, and I hope you’ll forgive me, but suddenly I’m feeling overwhelmed by survivor’s guilt and the only way I can deal with that is to step away. As one who comes closer than most to being able to understand, I’m sincerely very sorry to hear about your daughter.

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