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God Squad: The long road back from grief

My husband's son, my stepson, died suddenly last month at age 33. We're both having a very difficult time coping with the loss. I'm deeply saddened to watch my husband struggle with his pain. Are there any magic words or phrases to say to someone at this time? I feel helpless.

- K., via e-mail


May God comfort you and your husband on your tragic loss. May the soul of your stepson be received in heaven among the holy and righteous. This is what I believe. Now, let me tell you what I know.

I know there are no "magic words or phrases" you can use. As a great playwright once said, "Oh, you see, my dear, there is no cure for that on planet Earth." The brokenness we experience as we live cannot be undone. Our job is to figure out what we need to do to make a spiritual scab form over our spiritual wounds. The scab doesn't make the wound go away; it just helps us live with it and keeps us from bleeding out at the site of the wound.

The scary thing I know is, for many of us who've loved deeply and then lost that love in death, there's a piece of us that actually wants to join the person in death. This is scary but normal, and usually this self-destructive part of us yields to the demands and loves of life that we still possess. At that point in our grief work, each person must figure out how to heal and return to life.

Some people need to talk their way into healing with family or friends. Others need to pray their way into healing by reminding themselves that even in their darkest days, their blessings exceed their burdens. Some people I know need to serve their way into healing by helping those in need or organizing to support those trying to find cures.

I know that words are not that helpful to those trying to heal.

Words address our mind, and our brokenness is in our soul. The only words I've ever encountered that seem to help a bit are one question and one statement.

The question is, "How are you doing today?" This question is totally different from the similar question, "How are you doing?" The answer to the second question is often an expression of rage: "How do you think I'm doing? My son just died!" However, the answer to "How are you doing today?" comes easier because the query is more modest. Rather than asking how the person is doing in some cosmic, existential sense, you're asking how he or she is doing at the moment.

This question reflects the deep knowledge that healing from grief is not like healing from a broken bone. Bones heal a little every day.

Souls can also heal this way, then suddenly slide backward before resuming their upward arc.

Over time - sometimes years - a grieving person will notice that they've formed a scab over the wound and found a new place to continue their lives. The test for me is whether they can smile a real smile.

The second set of words I know that is valuable to grieving people form a statement accompanied by a touch. You touch the person in grief, look into his or her eyes and say, "I love you, and you are not alone." What you're really doing is reminding the person that he or she may have lost one person they loved, but they haven't lost everyone they loved and who loved them.

I urge you to be patient with your husband. Don't expect his grief to be resolved and tied up with a neat bow. Ultimately, he must discover what he needs to find his way back to the light of a new day.

Resist the urge to say, "Everything will be all right." That's not true. Nothing will ever be all right again, if by all right you mean a life lived with your stepson again. If what you mean is that everything will be new and different now, and that it can be all right in a new and different way, that is the truth. But you and your husband must decide that this is what you want and need. You can't save him or yourself from the agony of the journey from brokenness to a new wholeness. The only way out of this is not around it but through it.

I believe with all my heart that we won't be separated forever from those we love. I don't know this, but I believe it, and this belief, taught in my religion of Judaism, sustains me in the here and now. I pray for your healing, your husband's healing and the healing in heaven that awaits us all.

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