When my paternal grandfather passed away at age 82, I was 13. I remember my father in tears and my parents’ friends coming around after the funeral to tell us how sorry they were. Everyone was so kind and consoling. Gentle. Heartfelt. Wanting to be close and comforting. Even my classmates and teachers were so very kind. So kind.
And I really, really hated it.
My paternal grandfather was not your typical kindly old grandpa. He smoked and drank and swore. He hadn’t been a loving father to his sons and he wasn’t kind to my mother. He prided himself on being irascible, and not in a cute way. While he had been an integral part of my brothers’ lives, I came along much later and his interest in grandchildren had waned to zero. He could be obtuse and selfish. He was demanding and rough. His death wasn’t all that hard on me. But it was on the rest of the family.
When he died, the primary emotion I felt was rage. Rage that his loss had wounded my father and brothers, rage that we were inundated with attention and had no privacy, rage that we were now completely caught up in funeral arrangements and in dealing with his grieving widow, my step-grandmother who was equally if not more obtuse and selfish as he had been. Rage at the gentle acceptance of my mother, who handled the casseroles and the flowers and the family with equal grace. Rage at my own sense of not caring.
One of my classmates told me that she was sorry, and I replied, “Why? You didn’t do anything. Besides, it’s no big deal. Everybody dies.” I deflected every kind word, every gesture, every somber expression. I threw out sympathy cards as quickly as they came in. I was having none of it. How dare these people want to walk alongside me? Did they think they had the right to see me at my weakest? I wasn’t about to lean on anyone and I resented their expectation that I would. I didn’t need to. I didn’t want to. I stood apart, and I liked it that way. Everyone to their own private feelings, and no sharing, thank you very much.
Now I realize that my anger was a very effective way to remove myself from having to enter into the grief of my family. It protected me from feeling empathy that would have made me feel, truly feel the fear of watching my parents in pain, or having to admit that I was overwhelmed, afraid and powerless. It kept me from the confusion that comes when you don’t feel the same as everyone else. Instead of choosing to feel grief and allowing others to try and comfort me, I closed up my heart like a soldier about to go to battle, and emotion was my enemy. I was proud of my strength. I had a shield of anger that would hold back the kindest words and the deepest doubts.
I think Facebook is a great place to wield this shield of the heart now in this time of pandemic. If someone posts a video of medical personnel who are exhausted beyond measure and desperate for rest, it’s easier to refute them as being overly dramatic pawns of the lefties. No need to feel sorry – arrow deflected! If there’s a video of people protesting for reopening businesses, we can focus on the people holding “I want a haircut” signs so that we don’t have to think too much about the people out of frame who are terrified of their jobs being lost permanently. No need to feel guilt if you are still employed – pang of guilt bounced right off! I have read long strings of rebuttals, arguments, excuses, rants, finger-pointing and insults. Sometimes I participate. So many shields. Ping. Pow. Zing! So much ricochet. So few actual moments of connection. So many words for so much isolation.
What I have found in myself now is that 13 year old girl is still alive and angry. I don;t want her on my Facebook posts, but she lingers just off the screen, daring me to write her words. The mature part of me looks for ways to help, to learn, to listen; but she is not about to be silenced, and she has a lot to say about refusing to feel. By God, we are not going to let our guard down! Screw that! I know my rights! You are wrong! I think I am not alone in this…
In John 11:35, as Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, about to raise him up, Jesus does something that has always made me angry. He weeps.
As a child, it was completely incomprehensible. He knows he’s about to resurrect his friend, and that he has the power to make this whole terrible tragedy do a 180. So why the tears? As an adult, it infuriates me because I feel so convicted – he takes the time to empathize with the mourners, to fully enter into and share their grief. To feel the pain himself, without self protection or shame. To let his guard down completely and let someone else put an arm around him. To feel the wrath of Martha. To bear it with them. To be without words. To weep.
To let it be what it is – real.
He makes it look so easy. It’s not. I can sit with a grieving friend, and give support and love. And yes, I can feel with them and sincerely enter into their pain. For an hour, a day, maybe even a whole week. I can do that. I can even sense when they are getting angry, as I have been so many times during loss. I can put myself in their shoes. But it’s exhausting. And it’s even more exhausting to be on the receiving end of care and grace.
There is a point when I feel myself like the apostles at Gethsemane, drifting off. Falling asleep. Running away. My heart gets too heavy. I get compassion fatigue. I get itchy. I start looking for solutions. Distractions. Reasons. Plans A, B, C and D on how to handle it. How to get rid of it. How to forget. Minimize. How to change the channel. How to make it stop. How to make it just go away.
There is a prayer I say sometimes when I feel brave and so very stupid: “Jesus, break my heart for what breaks yours.” I would love to be spiritually mature enough to really mean it. But for now, I know deep down I’m usually much more scared he might take me up on it. I know that if I opened my heart just a tiiiiiiny bit more and prayed that he allow me to share that kind of suffering as a way of living for others more completely, he might actually honor the words and then I’d be stuck having to have a true heart of Christ, and there would be spiritual blood all over the place and no cleaning materials handy and who the hell really is ready for that?
Because to have that kind of heart that really breaks for others, you have to be right there with them in their powerlessness. You have to not have the answers, no nice bow to tie it up. You have to sit with the mess and not reach for a broom. You have to be willing to have empty hands. You have to sit in the dirt and know you are not getting cleaned up spiffy anytime soon. And hardest of all, you have to be willing to remember this vulnerability next time around and do it again.
And again. And again.
I don’t think I have that in me quite yet.
So right now, the best I can do is to want to want a heart that breaks for what breaks His. It’s a start. A very small one and I am not too proud of it.
Jesus wept. I didn’t.
But I want to.