The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Suggestions


Did you ever notice that when you get sick, everyone you know becomes a doctor?

“You need to drink lemon water every morning. And make sure it’s warm.”

“Your body is too acidic.”

“I’m taking a supplement that really helps me with that.”

“You need to drink less coffee.”

“You need to drink more coffee.”

“My aunt had the same thing, and she was bed-ridden for the last nine years of her life.”

“Have you heard about pulling?”

“Chiropractors? Bah! What do they know?”

“I’d recommend carrot juice. Make sure you buy organic carrots, though.”

“I think you’re gluten-intolerant. You need to stop eating grains.”

“Man, that sounds bad. I’d see a specialist, if I were you. The sooner, the better. It sounds like you need an MRI, and probably surgery.

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People mean well, and they want to help. So they jump into your circle of pain and speak from their own experience or that of people close to them. The process is the same with suggestions as it is with sympathy.

When we told our friends that Donna had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, their response was seismic–a tsunami of sympathy and concern. We were humbled and overwhelmed. People who loved us expressed themselves with heartfelt eloquence, and as Donna’s disease progressed, they assured us not only that they were praying for us daily, but also that they were weeping with us as they experienced vicariously the anguish of our impending separation.

Many offered suggestions–books on nutrition for chemotherapy patients; links to websites; anecdotes and advice related to the practical aspects of dealing with cancer. Some of these were helpful, and we were profoundly grateful for the love that prompted each of these gestures.

Indulge me as I rant for a minute. I know there will be medical people reading this, and I don’t want to offend you. I know practitioners who are not only exceedingly competent and well-trained, but also committed to their patients’ well-being and selfless in their devotion to them. The exception proves the rule. I am speaking in broad generalities, and my words are those of one who has experienced firsthand the sincere compassion, practiced competence, and astonishing accommodation of an enviable–albeit broken–medical care system. My observation about the medical industry in North America is that it is just that–an industry. Physicians treat symptoms. Most don’t promote wellness or practice preventative medicine, and few–by their own admission–know anything about nutrition. Despite loud crowing to the contrary, the industry seems to be searching not for cures, but for new treatments. There is a huge difference. (For instance, if a cure for cancer were found, the CEO of the American Cancer Society would have to look elsewhere for his million-bucks-a-year salary.) Sorry if I sound a little cynical. I am.

When Donna died, I expected friends to send suggestions. I was not disappointed. Along with hundreds of cards and encouraging notes, I received a number of books on grieving. A few were good. Others were predictable and generic to the point of being glib. I ordered C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and read it with the same admiring fascination as I have his other works. He wrote from my spot in the circle of pain, as if standing in my shoes. He lost his wife to cancer, and found that writing about his own grief was more helpful than reading about other people’s. That’s where I am. Having said that, other books I have found helpful are, J.I. Packer’s A Grief Sanctified (his re-telling, with commentary, of English Puritan Richard Baxter’s loss of his beloved wife); I Didn’t Know What to Say, by David Knapp; and Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves (the book I’m reading now.) Lewis’ famous, The Problem of Pain is on my summer reading list.

Grieving, while it involves universal elements, is a profoundly personal matter. Right after my wife’s death, I contacted four men–three colleagues and a friend from Boston whom I have not seen in years–who I knew shared my space in the circle. One lost his wife to breast cancer when they were both in their twenties and had a toddler. The wife of my friend in Boston died of cancer some years ago. Another, also a young father, lost his wife suddenly and shockingly during a medical procedure–surgery, as I recall. The fourth man’s first wife also died of cancer, and Donna was instrumental in introducing him to his new bride–something that brought her great joy and satisfaction.

I asked these men to be an email support group for me, and they readily agreed. I knew I had to source my suggestions carefully, and used several criteria. I chose:

  1. Men. Women have a different outlook on life, and while as a married man I found that infuriatingly helpful, I felt I needed the perspective of my own gender this time.
  2. Christians. I wanted to hear from men who share my worldview, my love for the True God and His Word, my assurance of eternal life, and my confidence in my Heavenly Father to restore joy and purpose to my remaining days here despite my loss.
  3. Friends. I wanted men whom I knew and trusted, men who would be frank with me– not mincing words, making assumptions about my ability to cope, or glossing over important matters of which I might be unaware.

These men have helped me more than they will ever know. They have been transparent in articulating their own despair and confusion. They have been bold and candid in their exhortations to me. They have encouraged me and taught me. I am immensely grateful.

By nature, I don’t accept suggestions readily. I prefer to do my own analysis and seek my own solutions. That is not a good quality, but it is part of my fallen character. The shocking decline and death of my beloved companion of 40 years shook me to my core. I realized that to immigrate to the world of grief without the help of experienced travelers would be foolhardy. Even dangerous.

I’m grateful I didn’t try to slip across the border undetected.

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