One of my best friends Alfred called me and told me the terrible news. His dad has suddenly passed from a brain aneurysm. Alfred didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to respond, this wasn’t supposed to happen like this. His dad was mostly healthy, and this was completely unexpected. He thought he had years or even decades left with his dad before things came to a sudden end.
Then things took a turn that I wasn’t really prepared for. Alfred said, “I don’t know how to live without my dad. He was my rock, and now he’s gone. What am I supposed to do?”
I responded with the first thing that popped into my brain, and almost immediately regretted it. “This sucks, dude. There’s no other way to describe it. I don’t pretend to know your pain, but I know this sucks, and I’m here if you want to talk about it.” You see, Alfred and I went to Bible college together in a very conservative school, so we were taught that everything has a purpose in God’s grand plan. I didn’t see any goodness in this moment, and I told him as much.
Years later, Alfred told me this was a turning point in his walk with God, and surprisingly it was in a positive way. Here I thought I had really made a terrible mistake, and apparently I hadn’t at all. Instead, I gave him permission to grieve without having a theological undergirding. Grief doesn’t need understanding; it just needs space to exist.
Was Job Depressed?
It’s too easy to misunderstand grief as depression, but they are very different things and need to be treated differently. As with anger and depression, the Bible has something to offer us, this time in the story of Job.
In a single day, Job lost nearly everything that could possibly matter to him. To make sure you don’t underestimate the enormity of his losses, let’s revisit Job 1 and 2 together. In a single day, Job lost his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, and his camels. But it wasn’t just economic losses he endured that day. He also lost an unnamed number of servants, and even worse he lost all his sons and daughters. Again, in a single day. Shortly thereafter, his entire body was covered with sores so painful that he used scraps of pottery to scratch them. In case you missed that the first time, he used POTTERY to relieve his pain.
His response to all his losses is then recorded in Job 3. He cursed the day of his birth. He wished he was a stillborn birth instead of ever being alive. He wanted to be buried in the ground on the day of his birth rather than loved and cared for by his mother. He cried out for all these things, because it would be better than enduring what he’s been forced to endure. The loss, the pain, the sorrow…it’s just too much for him.
Grief is an Entirely Different Animal Than Depression
On its face, this sounds like the voice of depression. So did Alfred when he said he didn’t know how to live any more. But these are not words of depression at all—they are words of grief. Sometimes grief sounds like depression, because there are no words to express the depth of the emotions being processed in the moment. But grief is not the same as depression at all.
Grief is the very normal and health response to painful losses. If we don’t grieve when we’ve suffered losses, then we aren’t able to move past these moments in our lives. We get stuck, and stuck isn’t a good place to be. Nobody wants to be stuck in life, no matter the cost. So, we grieve as a way to celebrate the life that was and to prepare to move forward eventually. But it takes time.
How to Help Others Grieve
Grief is a multilayered creature that in many ways defies explanation. Grief doesn’t look the same for every person, and grief doesn’t look the same for a single person over time. Sometimes grief exists as raging at the Great Beyond who allowed this to happen. Sometimes grief looks like a wave of sorrow. Sometimes grief is nothing more than a whimper, a weak thought that only persists in the back of the mind.
Grief is hard, no matter how it looks. But we can help our friends who are suffering through grief.
Give Them Time. Time is the gift we can give others who are grieving. Sometimes, we give that gift by acknowledging the pain, by saying, “This sucks.” By saying these rough words, we are actually giving our friend permission to grieve. We are saying it’s okay that nothing makes sense.
Too often in today’s world we are told to suck it up and move forward. Some things can’t be sucked up though. Some things take time, and some wounds never really heal. By acknowledging this pain, we give our friends the ability to sink into their sadness for a time and remember all that they’re going to miss. Grief is hard, but it’s harder when we feel like we don’t have permission to be sad.
Give the Ministry of Presence. Sometimes like Job’s friends we sit in silence and give the gift and ministry of presence. We sit with our Alfreds in their grief and say nothing. Maybe we cry with them. With the ministry of presence, what we don’t do is offer answers. When we try to answer for grief, it always falls flat. Let’s be honest—grief doesn’t have any answers. Grief just is.
Help Them Remember. The ministry of presence is about just being there for our friends, but sometimes there is more we can do than be by their side. We can help them remember the good times, before grief turned everything sour.
I recently had the privilege of doing this with a friend as she grieved the loss of her grandmother. She hasn’t passed yet, but the illness is all that remains. She was talking about how she missed the relationship she used to have with her grandmother. I gently asked her, “What was your grandma like before the illness?” She gave me a long and proud answer about how strong, how caring, how triumphantly individual, and how unique a person her grandma was. I reminded her that all those things are still true, and she started to cry a little. “I guess I’d forgotten who she was. Thank you for reminding me.” We can all do the same, with some carefully considered questions to draw the past out of the pain.
Grief Is About More Than Death
Perhaps the most common myth about grief is that it’s only relevant when a person has died. This is just wrong though. Grief isn’t just about someone dying. It’s about an idea dying. This is why people can grieve over so many different things.
I have personally grieved the loss of some of my dreams because of my mental and chronic illnesses. It’s been deeply painful for me to have to reconsider the reasonableness of some of my dreams now that I’m out on disability. I have had to look at myself and realize I’m not cut out for some of the things I once thought would be my dreams. There is a pain that’s almost beyond words when I come to grips with the reality that I’m not who I once was, that illness has stolen something from me. This is grief, pure and simple.
Perhaps your friend is grieving the loss of a close friendship. Maybe the loss of a career or a marriage. Even seeing a daughter walk away from her childhood faith is a reason to grieve. And this grief is as real as the death of a loved one.
So, tread carefully when you hear words of sorrow coming from a friend’s heart. It may not be depression at all. It could be grief, bound up and waiting to explode in a fiery mess of emotion. It’s so important to know the difference, because helping a friend with grief looks so very different from helping with depression.