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.
Grief's Rough Terrain
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.
The Longevity of Loss
Mary assured me I would mourn the absence of my father far into my future. I would cry when I married (and I did). I would weep holding my first baby (and I did). Although time can contribute partially to our healing by distancing us from the event of loss and dulling the acuity of our emotion, grief does not automatically diminish, eventually to disappear, simply because one accumulates torn-off calendar pages.
In his book A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser describes his own journey through grief as an amputation. Just as one learns to live without a limb, one can learn to live with loss. There is even the hope that one can resume a certain level of functioning. But these consolations are vastly different than saying that life—after amputation, after loss—ever returns to "normal."
It may be difficult to imagine that the assurance time does not heal can be of any great comfort, but it is indeed a source of hope in the face of loss. To say that time does not heal allows a person to reconcile herself to the longevity of the grieving process. It relieves her from the burden of having to observe any arbitrary deadlines for the aching sadness. That we cannot be rushed to heal does not mean we lack faith.
The Only True Hope
Time doesn't heal. Jesus does—and our true hope lies further in our future. Pain will only finally and fully heal when Jesus returns to put all of his enemies under his feet, including death itself.
The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this article still hasn't had the courage to return regularly to church.
I think she is afraid she cannot grieve there.
I think she fears that brokenness is somehow antithetical to hope.
I continue praying for her—that she will find companions for her journey of grief. And I pray those travelers who are called to accompany her will commit themselves to keeping patient, prayerful vigil, even as her grief may seem to stretch endlessly on.
This would be a gift: the gift of compassionate comfort.
Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She writes regularly for the devotional publication, Today in the Word, and Christianity Today's Her.meneutics. She is publishing a book about desire with InterVarsity Press next year.