My coworkers and I received the sad news last week that one of our colleagues had passed away. It was a shocking revelation to many, as few knew how ill he was. Only a few days before his death he had learned that he had stage four cancer. Most employees hadn’t even heard about the diagnosis, let alone that he was near death. As I sat with my coworkers at his funeral just days ago, many of us were still reeling from the abrupt loss. I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I was faced with the sudden death of a colleague. I was much younger—in my late-twenties, and Jeannette’s passing hit me with much greater intensity. We had not only been teammates in a tight-knit Christian camping ministry, we were very close friends and neighbors. The post below is based on the article I wrote in response to my first experience with sudden loss and grief. It also turned out to be my first published piece in a national Christian magazine.
It was a typical Monday morning at Camp. I watched as staff trickled into the main office, mumbling greetings on their way to the coffee pot. Friendly huddles were forming, and steam from the collection of mugs was beginning to rise above the conversations. I smiled from my desk as waves of laughter interrupted the din of chatter about the weekend. We surely are a group that loves to laugh, I thought. Little did I know that by our lunch hour, we would be gathered to weep together.
Jeannette came through the back hallway to make her early morning interoffice mail run. “Hi!” I said brightly. “Howdy,” she replied in her warm cowgirl fashion. “How was your weekend?” I asked. Her eyes lit up. “Great,” she responded. “I am so excited about the firefighter training I got.” Then she rattled off some long name about strategic tactics this-or-that. “Wow! You’ll have to tell me all about it,” I said. “Yeah, I will,” she replied as she started to move on to her next mailstop. I eyed her lavender top as she turned. “New sweatshirt?” “Uh huh. Got it this weekend.” “More teddy bears,” I observed. “Yeah,” she grinned. For someone who is tough enough to fight fires and wrangle horses she sure has a liking for cuddly things, I thought.
I focused back on my computer and plowed into work. The wind made the cedar beams in the lodge groan, causing me to glance out the windows to see the tops of the evergreens whipping about. Hm-m-m, bet there’ll be a fire call today, I thought in passing. It was common to hear the fire station’s siren go off on days when the weather was bad.
Ten o’clock staff meeting came, and we joined together as a “family” to share work-related and personal news. As always, we ended with a devotional time. A passage was read from Genesis about Abraham’s faith. I exchanged a knowing glance with Jeannette. We had studied that same section in our small group Bible study together.
After break Jeannette and I headed down the hall to attend a meeting. “Are we still on to play guitars Thursday night?” she inquired. “You bet,” I confirmed. We spent the next hour learning how to recruit summer staff at college campuses. Jeannette radiated enthusiasm about her first opportunity to share about the camp at a university in a few weeks. We parted for lunch.
Some say they heard the sirens over the noon hour. I didn’t, but when I returned from my break I immediately sensed that something was wrong. All the upper offices were empty and locked. Even the receptionist was gone. Now that is strange, I thought, but I unlocked my office anyway and started to shuffle through some papers.
The ring of the telephone pierced the silence. It was Jeannie, the receptionist. “Jane, you’d better come downstairs,” she said in a clouded voice. Now I knew something was serious. Instinctively I grabbed a tissue as I headed for the door. Jeannie met me at the bottom of the stairs. “I . . .I thought I’d better tell you before you go any further. Jeannette was killed. She had an accident in her pickup on her way to a fire call.”
Before I knew how to react, Jeannie’s arms were around me. My sobs broke free and my thoughts raced. “No! It couldn’t be true! I just saw her an hour ago . . . NOT JEANNETTE!! It has to be someone else . . . somebody I’m not so close to!
Immediately I felt someone taking me from Jeannie’s grasp and wrapping me in his fatherly arms. “What can I do to help you?” our executive director said. “I don’t know,” I choked out. “I’ve never had a close friend die before.”
And so, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with death. Up to that point I had always managed to keep the dreaded subject at a detached distance. Numerous relatives had died, but always out-of-state and far away emotionally. Even when my dog had to be put to sleep I had refused to go along or be present at his burial. But this time I couldn’t run away. Jeannette’s departure from my inner circle of friends had left a gaping hole that couldn’t be ignored.
During the next week I moved into uncharted territory. I didn’t know what to expect as the waves of grief pummeled me. At times I was surprisingly calm, and at other times acutely distraught. Looking back, I can remember specific actions that were the most helpful during my initial period of intense shock and grief. If someday I am faced again with the caring question, “What can I do to help you?” I will have a better idea of how to respond.
- Just Hold Me. My world is shattering around me. I need your strength to enfold, carry and comfort me.
- Just Say Three Words. Of all the words you can say to me during the first few hours, the only ones that really help are “I love you.”
- Just Listen. I need to tell you about the gamut of feelings rushing over me. I need to talk about the one I’ve lost. I have a lot of unanswerable questions.
- Just Let Me Be With You. It’s hard to be alone right now. You don’t need to entertain me or try to make me feel better. Simply let me be near you.
- Just Remember. My grief will not be over in a few days. In the coming weeks, months, and even years, I will still feel loss in unpredictable intensities. Have patience with me and support me in this journey over the long haul.
The next time I am faced with sudden loss I will also know better how to answer the question, “What can I do to help myself?” I’ll say,
- Turn Loose the Tear Ducts. Go ahead and really cry. Braveness and makeup don’t matter anymore. Dampen someone’s shoulder. Dampen several. Get alone somewhere and wail from the depths of your soul.
- Tell Someone How You Feel. Don’t hold in the pain, fear, confusion, and anger. Keep sharing with people and with God what you’re feeling.
- Touch Others Who Are Grieving. Remember that you are not the only one hurting. Extend a hug or a listening ear to someone else. Write notes of sympathy or send flowers. Find practical ways to help, like providing food or assisting with logistics for the memorial service.
- Try to Face Reminders. Physical reminders of the person you’ve lost will seem to pop up everywhere. Though it may be painful, try not to avoid them. Your help may be needed in dealing with the departed person’s belongings or work projects.
- Trust God. Above all, cling to the sovereignty of God. Remember that he is still in control and that his purposes are higher than yours. Know that he is close to the brokenhearted and will help you in the difficult days ahead.
I may never fully understand God’s reasons for taking Jeannette when she was only 22, but I learned the valuable lesson that my Savior will not abandon those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Rather, he will be the first one to say just three words, “I love you.”