Panic pounded my chest.
I opened the back door to be greeted by a cloud of black smoke so vast, I knew it was close but couldn’t tell from where. Slamming the door, I dashed to the other side of the house, swiping my phone along the way. I burst through the front door (did I remember shoes?) and, seeing an immediate neighbor, Summer, asked if it was her home. No, she yelled, it was the elderly couple’s home on the other side of hers.
As I came up to where Summer stood, panic raged like the flames leaping six feet up from their kitchen window.
They were never out of town. In the six years we’ve lived here, Ron and Onna were always home. Always.
I saw Summer’s husband on the phone with 911, so she and I started sprinting around Ron and Onna’s house, screaming for them, banging on the doors and the windows. We knew. And there was nothing we could do.
I got the bright idea to try and get the hose – what more could I do? I ran inside, screaming for Josh to wake up and help me. We realized the hose wouldn’t reach, and by the time we got back over to the house, my neighbor Doug and an unknown gentleman were banging down Ron’s front door. They got it open, but the fire pushed them back. And then the fire trucks arrived.
For nearly five hours, the fire raged through the house. They’d get it out in one place and it would start somewhere else. And all we could do was watch. All but two of the Springfield fire stations were on the scene. The first wave of firefighters that made it inside the house bailed out a side window within minutes – the flames jumped at them and snapped their lines. Two were sent to the hospital with burns. And, hour after hour, the fire would not be stopped and the firefighters could not get inside.
Morning came. By 5:30, the hoses were shut off. At 10am, they started tearing down walls. The upper level had collapsed – even with the flames out, the firefighters still could not go in the house. So, slowly, meticulously, they dug. All day long.
It wasn’t until about 6:30 that evening that what we believed was confirmed. Ron and Onna were found at the bottom of the rubble. Together.
To say that it was traumatizing would be an understatement. I’ve still not been able to process it.
And to recap the last year… my grandmother died of cancer. The best dog on the planet (anyone that met him will agree) died of cancer – my boys still tell everyone they meet that Gizmo died. I still cry about him once in awhile – he was my baby. Our house sold, we found our dream home, we packed everything we owned – and then it didn’t – and we unpacked in the same place we started. Not three weeks later, the fire raged.
I have a substantial helping of perspective in my life. My work with On Angels’ Wings provides that in plenty. I won’t ever sit here and pretend like what we’ve been through in the last year even comes close to the grief of losing a child.
But this is the loss I know. And my grief is not your battlefield.
This is not the place to tell me how much worse it can be. This is not the place to tell me how I’ve got it good because your circumstances far outweigh mine. This is not the place to let your own grief rear its head and smash into me with the horns of a ram to make sure I understand that other people are hurting too.
It’s my job… no… my calling… to be there for people who are hurting in unimaginable ways. I spend every day chatting with moms who are watching their little one suffer in agony because the state cut off her insurance and they can’t buy medication, or who sit by helpless while their child goes through yet another heart surgery before even starting preschool, or who never get to take their baby home from the hospital at all.
I never tell them it could be worse. I never list the difficulties in my life as a means of comparison. I never tell them to stay strong. I never tell them things will get better. And, even though I believe it with every fiber of my being, I never, ever tell them that God has a plan.
Because those are all words. They are meaningless – and sometimes thoughtless – words that only make the grief that much harder to bear.
Someone’s grief is not a place to brandish your faith or how strong you would be or how you expect them to push through it. There are no expectations in grief. There is processing, there is enduring, there is surviving to the other side of it. But the journey there is filthy. It’s long. It’s arduous. It’s completely unbecoming and sometimes even downright ugly. It’s angry. It’s defeated. It’s broken. It’s soggy, limp and rigid. It’s everything you don’t want to be but sometimes all that you are.
And that is, without hesitation, perfectly acceptable.
There is no course correcting. There is no redirecting or distracting. All there is for you to do when someone you care about is grieving any sort of loss significant to them is to love and console. Don’t even say “it will be okay,” because it’s often completely unfathomable. Tell them how much it sucks. Tell them that you’re angry. That you’re heartbroken. That you don’t even get how they’re still standing.
Validate. Let them know that it’s okay to feel the way they feel.
Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.
Romans 12:15 (MSG)
But, for the love of GOD, don’t make someone’s grief a battlefield for whatever personal struggles you’re facing too. If you can’t be the friend that someone needs because your world is being ravaged by your own loss, then say “I love you. I’m praying for you.” and find someone to unload your own grief on that can handle the weight of it.
Friendly fire usually gets you both killed.