We ran into each other at church, and each of us was surprised by the chance encounter. A year and a half earlier, my family had moved away, and we were only back in town to visit. We hadn't kept in close touch, so I didn't expect my friend's sudden confession.
"We haven't been here in months," she admitted, lowering her voice and looking around nervously. "Or," she corrected, "maybe it's been closer to a year."
This was all she offered.
"Really? It's been that long?"
I squeezed her arm reassuringly. And remembering just how inarticulate grief could be, I didn't press for details.
She and her husband had lost their oldest daughter in a tragic car accident two and a half years earlier. On the day they received the news, I arrived after a long parade of friends and found them in their living room, encircled by their other children in silent shock. I had come only to pray with them briefly—and knew the real work of offering comfort was far ahead in the future, when the casseroles stopped coming, when people began expecting them to move on.
We often grow impatient with grief.
I only know this because I learned it as a college freshman, after a stranger found me in a crowded dining hall to tell me that my father, who had recently celebrated his 49th birthday, was dead. In a numb state, I flew home.
It wasn't until six months later that life began to lurch and reel. Unexpectedly, I began struggling to manage my course load. A slow and steady panic was strangling me—every syllabus a noose, even life's simplest responsibilities a chokehold. I felt like the victim of an emotional hit-and-run.
Providentially, I was introduced to my friend Mary not long after the panic attacks started. Standing in her kitchen on the day of our acquaintance, I found immediate safety in her maternal eyes and silver hair. She rolled cookie dough between her palms and listened, even though I hadn't come with the intention of telling my story. How was it that we got to talking about my family, about losing my father? And why did my sobbing take me by such surprise?
"You're grieving," she gently explained. She herself knew the dizzying force of grief and cried that day recalling how 20 years ago her daughter's fever had come on suddenly, and in three days' time her 11-year-old was dead. For the next year, Mary became a gentle guide who charted the terrain of grief for me. She taught me what may be the most useful thing to know, something I wish every well-meaning friend or church-goer knew who wants to offer comfort to someone who grieves: time does not heal.