People yet to be deeply affected by the death of a loved one, often urge the bereaved to Be Strong, or to Stay Strong. Earlier, I described NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s tragic death (https://www.gordongrose.com/ the-death-of-kobe-bryant/). People on Twitter have expressed their support for Kobe’s wife Vanessa by urging, “Stay strong, Vanessa!” In fact, “Stay Strong!” doesn’t help those in grief and loss.
“Stay Strong, Vanessa!”: Twitter
Here are some responses from people on Twitter: “Vanessa Bryant is strong. A different type of strong. How is she able to post this week?? Strength!” “Glad she is holding up strong. We will just keep supporting her and her family.” “My thoughts and prayers for his wife and family and It hard for her losing both her husband and daughter in tragic helicopter crash. I’m praying for her and his family to be strong.” “Praying for you and the family @VanessaBryantKG: I love you and miss you Kobe and Gianna. You will always be my strength.”
“Thanks For Your Support”
In her first public statement since Kobe’s death, Vanessa graciously expressed her appreciation for the outpouring of support to her and her family. “My girls and I want to thank the millions of people who’ve shown support and love during this horrific time,” she wrote on Instagram. (CNN.com) She recounts how much she misses her “best friend” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/vanessa-bryant-remembers-best-friend-kobe-bryant-instagram-n1131056).
I raise this issue of urging “strength” on the bereaved, or complimenting them for it, because, in most cases, saying, “Stay strong!” does not help people in grief and loss. Many of our responses to others in crisis enable us to cope better with the tragedy. As we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person, we feel at a loss. We don’t know what to say, so we attempt to comfort in a way that helps us move on from the issue as quickly as possible. “You’re so strong, you’ve got everything under control, so I can leave you without feeling guilty for abandoning you.” In other words, the last thing we want is to have to feel the impact of the loss through hearing the emotional pain of the recently bereaved.
Stay Strong! Won’t Help Those in Grief and Loss
The reason “Stay Strong, Vanessa!” won’t help those in grief and loss: that’s what we want. These well-wishers need Vanessa to “Stay strong!” for them. Put yourself in the bereaved’s shoes. Having just lost your husband, wife, child, or parent, what would you think if someone suggested to you that you “Stay Strong!” I believe they would think, Thanks for the thought, but you have no comprehension of how I feel. They may even think, Do you even care how I feel? Or they may think, “I know you mean well, but I can’t cope with what you’re saying. I need to leave.” So they thank us for our kind concern and get back to the business of coping with their loss and grief– alone. We feel relieved we no longer have to deal with such deep emotional pain.
So what is the correct thing to say? First recognize that in the categories we use, we tend to impose our perception on the grieving person. Strong v. weak is not in their purview at the moment. They want to know how they can get through the next day, the next hour, or even the next few minutes without their lost loved one. What would we say, then? If we want to be genuinely helpful, we need to discover what they may feel and key our response to support that.
“How Should She Feel?”
A number of years ago, at a Christian camp in the east, one of the men attending suddenly died of a heart attack. The speaker immediately sought to minister to the widow. He used Scripture to instruct her. When challenged, the leader responded, “We know how she is feeling, but what should she feel?” He assumed from his role as speaker to the conference that he was anointed to assist. But in fact he sought to impose a “correct” attitude toward her loss, the only Christian attitude to hold. I felt deeply sorry for that poor widow. The leader didn’t care enough to listen. The self-appointed comforter, like Job’s colleagues, rushed to conform her experience to his pre-conceived theology. Just as it felt too painful to listen to Job’s wish to die (Chapter 3), like Job’s friends, the speaker issued a Christian bromide for this woman to swallow. Another version of “Stay Strong,” but it doesn’t help someone in grief and loss.
How does Vanessa feel? She already told us! We probably slid over how she described her experience (I did). Recall, in thanking her well-wishers, she calls it, “this horrific time.” Just how much horror do we really want to hear?
Grief And Loss: What To Say
I’ve addressed this issue of what to say to a person sin grief and loss in a previous blog (https://www.gordongrose.com/what-words-do-yo…-grieving-friend/). But there are times I don’t know what to say. I barely know what to ask. So first, I’d begin with asking the grieving person to describe what happened: “Tell me what happened.” In the recounting of the events of the tragedy, the healing begins. Then, I’d listen. In the listening of the caring friend, the healing continues. Finally, I’d offer prayer. “May I pray with you?” In your prayer for the Lord to be close to those who are brokenhearted, the person may feel you understand. That thought may link to: “If this person understands and prays for brokenhearted me, maybe God understands me also.”
Rachel G Greenberg (Twitter @ConnectionsHope), another widow, responded to Vanessa’s loss. “My heart hurts for her,” she wrote. “All of the outpouring of grief and love for the passing of Kobe Bryant is massive. I wish every bereaved person could get the same amount of loving kindness. So many grieve alone.”
“Stay strong” doesn’t help those in grief and loss.” We need instead to support the grieving in their loneliness. When we recoil from their emotional hurt at their loss, we abandon them to solitary grieving. Too hot for us to handle, we fail to key in to the bereaved’s need. In all probability they won’t even know what they need, so we may have to initiate help. Even a brief few moments of intense listening shows enormous caring.
Instead of “Stay Strong, Vanessa,” we help the grieving better by saying: “Tell me more, Vanessa! What happened?”
[Picture Credit: Kobe and Vanessa, https://www.tmz.com/2020/02/05/vanessa-bryant-kobe-bryant-posted-gianna-instagram/]