leading from within
Helping a Team Member to Grieve
Tips from a Dad with a Raw Broken Heart
“Close your eyes. Raise your hand if you have experienced a tragedy or serious illness in the last five years.” Half of the audience raised their hand. “Keep your hand raised if that has happened in the last two years.” 10-15 hands remain. “Now, of those remaining, keep your hand raised if your loss was the death of a spouse or a child.” Only 3-4 hands remain. “Now keep your hand raised if you lost a beautiful 28 year old daughter named Amy that was one of the godliest people you have ever met.” That was the way I introduced the topic of grieving to my audiences at every High Impact training event this year.
Do you know what I’ve learned since the loss of our precious daughter Amy? I have learned that I am not very good helping others to grieve. I wonder just how often I have made the pain of others worse or poked around in their open wound. Shocking gaffes have taught me a lot about what not to do and I have garnered even more from watching the body of Christ show real love.
If you lead volunteer teams, then it is only a matter of time before one of your team members experiences a loss. Learning how to suffer with your team members is a crucial part of what we call the “In-here goals” in High Impact. Maybe you can garner a tip or two from these guidelines that come from the raw broken heart of a hurting Dad.
What not to do?
Don’t use feigned compassion as an opportunity to get a newbie in your network marketing down line. Don’t send plastic flowers. Don’t get the name wrong of the person who has died, just saying….
Don’t tell someone you “understand”. With the best of intentions, person after person has said to us, “I understand because…” The moment I hear those words, besides wanting to punch them, a wall rises in my heart like a spam blocker to fend off more emotional pain. I Kings 8:38, Solomon talks about people approaching God in prayer and says, “each one knowing the affliction [or plague] of his own heart.” You may understand what it’s like to change a flat tire or to experience a computer crash, but you cannot possibly understand someone else’s pain, precisely because it is so personal. As my introduction illustrates the only way to understand my pain is to be me. Pain is deeply personal and directly links to years, relationship, memories and the bond of love or the lack of those personal elements.
Don’t tell me your story. Wendy my wife is a cancer survivor. She survived chemo and the loss all of her hair, but untimely cancer stories almost killed her. It was astounding just how many people shared cancer stories ending with the death of their loved one, NOT what Wendy needed to hear.
“I lost a child too.” You would think that would be comforting, but it is far from comforting when a person begins to cry and share for thirty minutes just how devastated they still are, especially when our wound is so fresh.
Imagine you are experiencing a heart attack. An EMT is standing over you and rather than life-saving medical techniques, the EMT begins to share, “Yep, my uncle had a heart attack once; he suffered for years, had a bypass and then…” Sharing grief is NOT a competition. What’s amazing is to receive a card from someone that we know has experienced deep pain, and yet they don’t mention their loss.
Don’t expect me to get over it. If I seem angry, despondent, and hopeless or if I scream, yell, or even swear, I haven’t jumped off the God boat. I am mourning, grieving. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Is 53:3). Ecclesiastes says “Better is the house of mourning.” Jesus said blessed are those who mourn. Jesus wept after the death of Lazarus. Grieving is normal. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to grieve. There is no time limit on grieving. Don’t expect me to make progress on your time table. We’ll never get over the loss of Amy. We’ll always walk with a limp. Sometimes we cry every day, sometimes every few days. It is what we are supposed to do. And, it’s also okay if we don’t cry. Allowing ourselves to grieve has been healing. It is my common prayer, “Help us to grieve as You would have us grieve.” It’s therapy for our souls.
What to do?
Listen. For all of the failings of Job’s friends, they waited 7 days before they spoke. They saw his pain was so deep they said nothing. I told a friend and executive at a Christian organization, who also tragically lost a child that we thought about writing a book on what to do. He said he’d thought of it too, but then realized the first chapter would be blank. Bridling our tongue is maybe the godliest thing to do. Let me talk, scream, cry and yell if I want to, or let me sit and say nothing but just listen.
Feel. Sharing grief with others has far too often been a to-do list for me. Send a card; say the right words; buy flowers. I have failed often at feeling another person’s pain. Now, I try to shut up and consciously feel their pain. After hearing of our loss, a pastor from a church that had been a client called and left a message. He was sobbing uncontrollably about our loss. I listened to that message more than once. How much it meant to me.
Say something. It is also important to verbally acknowledge someone else’s loss. Avoiding the subject or talking about sports simply is not going to cut it. You must address it. I am so sorry for your loss. There are no words. I am sorry for your pain. Some other helpful phrases: How are you holding up? Would you care to talk about it? What was Amy like? If you know positive things about their loved ones, share it! Reading hundreds of comments through our daughter’s tribute page has been wonderfully healing. One of the most beautiful things a Christian leader said to me was, “I’ve met your daughter Becky and if your daughter Amy was even remotely as incredible as her, I can’t even begin to imagine your loss.” Amy was that incredible and I cherish that comment.
Do something. I often wondered if sending flowers was a waste, not any more. We received many flowers, and I read every note more than once. Sending a card is great. What was even more special was receiving a beautiful card with carefully crafted words. The first meals we received were from Christian leaders from a client in Canada. Our daughter Becky had many friends who would just come, watch her kids and or sit with her days to help her make it through the day. Family members sat with us. Several of them without being asked, just super cleaned our SUV. Don’t ask what you can do, just do it. One day we came home; our hearts were grieving so hard, we could barely stand up. That day, we opened an envelope from the staff of Operation Christmas Child full of countless restaurant gift cards. It was perfect, we cried and cried. Many people skilled in grieving just gave me the biggest hug. I never knew how much an embrace could mean.
Recently I shared some of these lessons at an event. After the session several people stood in line to greet me. The last man, a big ol’ country boy with a ball cap, waited patiently. When his turn arrived, he stepped up and hugged me for several moments and then left without a word. I just stood there and then I cried.
Experiencing God’s power together with others is a cause for team celebration; however suffering together produces an adhesive team bond that is unbreakable.
written by Al Newell on 05.19.2012
"The Executive Course changes your paradigm of thinking about volunteers. Do not hand over the sacred keys of your ministry to just any volunteer-Practice High Impact principles...."
National Executive Director
American Heritage Girls