Have you ever read a beach ball? I was really bored at a cub scout pool party once, so I started reading a beach ball. I noticed it said, “warning this is not a life saving device.” I thought, “Wow, there must be a story there.” I started picturing it in my mind, someone drowning and another person tossing them this ball. Although I could see that it might be helpful for some. For the typical, inexperienced swimmer, usually children, this ball might not help at all. They may not be able to grasp it. Plus, it would do that thing that beach balls do, every wave would push it farther from their grasp as they wasted their energy trying to get to it. The beach ball is like the donut hole of the life saving device. We need the donut, not the hole. Something we can wrap an arm through, that can’t slip away from us.
Have you ever had someone throw you what they think is helpful advice to save you from the situation you’ve just shared with them, and it hits you like a giant beach ball? When your caught in the midst of crashing waves and the storms of life, doesn’t some of the advice feel a bit disconnected from your actual need? Instead of a ring you can slip an arm into, you get a ball that’s hard to grasp and typically drifts into the irrelevant horizon as you continue to drown. You can’t even hold onto it because of how ridiculous it is, and yet because you’re desperate you try to make sense of it. You may even try to use it, and just find yourself even more worn out by trying to make it into something it’s not.
If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you may know what I’m talking about. It is that moment where people say things like, “You don’t need to be sad. They’re in heaven now.” Their certainty about the ethereal, although it seems to be from a posture of caring, isn’t that comforting. It dismisses the sorrow without actually getting at what the sorrow is about. I find this response is a placebo for the person offering the sentiment. It is their way of dealing with their own grief in seeing the tears of a friend. They want to help and feel helpless. They grieve not having their happy friend and want to rush them back into that way of being as fast as possible.
Whether there is no afterlife or there is a heaven that some day they might reconnect to their loved one in the future is irrelevant to the reality that they aren’t able to connect with them now. They haven’t yet found a way to move into the world that no longer has their loved one accessible the way they were before now.
Grief is the experience of moving from one reality to another. It’s our response to change. We all grieve. We grieve our favorite sports team losing a game because at the beginning of the year we had hopes that this would be the season that they would win it all. That reality dies. We grieve moving from one house to another house because the second house hasn’t yet become home the way the previous one was. We grieve getting married because we have lost something of our independence. Change, even positive change, involves grief. You have lost or gained someone or something and have to relearn how to live in the world. The world no longer exists as it once did. The “lifesaving” device we offer to people whose world has drastically changed has to be something that can reconnect them to the world that is, not an ethereal imagined potential world of tomorrow.
As we move for wholeness for ourselves and others, we must develop the spiritual gift of empathy, that seeks to understand what is lost, what is broken, and then offer real ways of connecting to the reality of life in this new world. It’s the part of the late Aretha Franklin song “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” that we rarely focus on. “Find out what it means to me.” IF we really want to help, we must first find out what the sorrow is. What did that person or thing mean to you? What do you miss the most? Then and only then can we invite the mourner to reflect on what might help reconnect what they cherished with their current reality.
May you stop throwing beach balls at people’s grief. May you stop throwing “less-than-helpful” sentiments. It’s not a saving device. May you develop skills in human empathy that enable you to seek to understand people’s fears and sorrows to discover their actual needs. May you become more aware of your own griefs, so you don’t mask your pain by offering platitudes to ease your conscience. May you recognize when others have thrown you a beach ball, so you avoid wasting energy grasping at ethereal realities that never reconnect you with the salvation you really desire. May you find habits that resurrect the reality of what you’ve lost. May you reconnect with what was sacred about that relationship and weave it back into the life you live today, making it live again in your being.
Hurst Christian Church