By Peggy Kao Enderle
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In 2009, my parents died within six months of each other, first my dad from suicide and then my mom from cancer. A week after my dad died, we discovered that we were pregnant. A week after my mom’s cancer diagnosis, I was put on bedrest for three months due to pregnancy complications. Half of that time was spent in the hospital, and I would not get to be with my mom when she died. I ended up delivering my son Isaac 6 weeks early. I would not get to attend her funeral.
My grief was more than I could bear. The worst was having people ask me how I was doing. I hated the dreaded, “Let me know how I can help!” and while nursing I spent time thinking of sarcastic responses to make friends feel terrible for saying such inane things.
I snapped at those around me for saying the wrong things. I asked friends to not call me, but to write emails if they wanted to express their condolences. A friend left me a teary voicemail about how sorry she was to hear about my loss. I ended our friendship by ghosting her. How dare she violate the boundaries I set up. There was no such thing as mourning well for me.
My friends must have felt paralyzed. There was no right thing to say or do in the midst of such grief: how could there be? But there were friends who set aside their own hurt feelings at the tongue lashings I dished out. They never gave feedback about how inappropriate my anger was. These were friends who let me rant heresy when I wanted and sat in silence with me when I had nothing to say.
When Mary lost her brother Lazarus, she lashed out at Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) Jesus did not rebuke her for her lack of faith or her disrespectful attitude. He did not make everything better right away. Instead he let the sisters express their needed grief and asked to go to the tomb and stand at the place of loss without promising the miracle of resurrection. Jesus wept alongside the mourners. True to his name (Matthew 1:23), he showed what it is to be God with us, even in the ugly depths of grief.
Being a friend to someone in grief can feel like using a teaspoon to catch the downpour of anger, sorrow, and silence. Your friend asks the heretical questions, “Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77:8-9) and dares you to answer.
Grief could not be contained, and it sloshed around and spilled out everywhere. The friends who held my grief had to become okay with getting splattered. They caught little bits with their teaspoons and got soaked by the rest. They focused less on how the outbursts made them feel and set aside the illusion that their support would actually help. Instead, they showed up without an umbrella, ready to be drenched. They said, “I will sit in the cold and wet with you.”
I would not, or maybe could not cry over those losses for a long time. As Isaac turned two, God seemed to say that it was okay to tend to my grief. Those friends showed up once more to sit with me as I wept… and wept… and then wept some more.
This year has brought so much loss and sadness. We are mourning deaths and job losses. The Black community is mourning even more deeply the visual evidence of the reality they’ve known for the past 400 years. As I scroll through my social media feed, I see people processing, expressing anger, rejecting comfort, and calling for change. I am reminded that this is what grief can look like.
As you try to be a friend to those in grief, you are going to feel paralyzed and that’s okay. Sit in the discomfort of feeling powerless and helpless. And just say, I see you. I’m listening. I’m here with my teaspoon, and I’m learning to get wet with you in the deluge.
Peggy Kao Enderle is the Digital Learning Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, developing staff to develop students into world changers. She hosts the The Art of Venn podcast, helping ministry folks to go from surviving to thriving. She lives in Davis, CA with her resident theologian husband, Bryan, and budding scientist son, Isaac.