When a friend is grieving

by Annette Bridges. ©2010. All rights reserved.

I still beat myself up over words said many years ago when a friend’s child died.

Today, I was reminded of this when another friend posted on Facebook, “People say odd and not-helpful things to the grieving. A simple — I’m sorry for your loss — is really much more appropriate.” She provided a link to a helpful article published on AOL Health titled, “10 best and worst things to say to someone in grief.”

I agree with my friend — it is a good article. And I agree with its list of both the ten best things to say and the ten worst things. The article points out that most of us have probably said some of the best and the worst. Sadly, some of my worst made the top ten.

Life can change in the blink of an eye. My friend and I shared many breakfasts together, shopping outings and trips with our daughters. We went from being together every week to rarely ever seeing each other.

And time has not lessened my regrets.

I still recall the extreme emotions I struggled with. My heart ached. I could hardly breathe or swallow as I sat on the swing waiting for someone to open the door. It was like a very bad dream that I wanted desperately to wake up from. I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want to believe it was.

I had no idea what to say to my friend when she opened the door. Actually, I don’t remember what I did say. I just remember feeling later that it was wrong or stupid and I wished I had said nothing at all.

I know now that it’s very normal to not know exactly what to say or what to do in these tragic instances. In fact, we don’t need to feel we should have answers or provide advice. And oftentimes, it really is better to say nothing. Being there — just being there — is enough. Our supportive and caring presence is all that is needed.

Not too long ago I did have the occasion to speak to this friend with the opportunity to express my regrets for any stupid statements said in her first moments of grief. She told me that she didn’t remember anything I said or anything anyone else said to her during those hours. But what she did remember was that I was there.

The old adage, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all” could be applied in scenarios of grief. However, I would tweak it a bit — “When in doubt, say nothing.”

Trust me — there probably aren’t many good things to say to someone grieving. And it is better to say nothing, than something that is later regretted.

So, what should we say or do when wanting to comfort friends in grief?

Again, the simple “I am so sorry” can be enough. We might add, “I am here for you.” These are two from the top ten best things to say list.

We can be honest and admit we wished we had the right words, but don’t. And we should always, always listen without comment. We should never disagree with or argue or judge anything a grieving friend says in their first hours of grief. Something I wish I had understood back then.

I may not be able to change what I said in the past. But I can consider my words more compassionately in the future. And I will remember that giving a hug or squeezing the hand of a grieving friend speaks volumes. Our presence is what matters most.

My Facebook miracle

by Annette Bridges. ©2010. All rights reserved.

Did you know that it really is possible to find a needle in a haystack? I truly believe that anything can happen if your search is on Facebook!

A few days ago I had the surprise of my lifetime. But that is not where this story begins.

My mom divorced my dad when I was nine years old. Then he passed away a few months later. Sadly, communication was lost between her and my dad’s family.

In the meantime, my mom and I moved several states to the west and started a new life. Years past without me knowing my aunt, uncle and numerous cousins — forty-two years to be exact!

Children of divorce often get the raw end of the deal. And I don’t know that I can offer the perfect solution. I do applaud parents who strive to maintain a relationship with their ex-spouse’s family members — when this is possible. I have no doubt that this task is not always easy, consequently, I do not intend to pass judgment. Furthermore, I also know there are many sides to every marriage and divorce that impacts communication among families. I know it was not so simple for my mom.

Still, I can’t help but wish that I could have grown up knowing my dad’s side of the family.

Needless to say, it’s never too late to know your cousins. This was my Facebook post after I received a message from a gal who turned out to be one of mine. She was sending Facebook messages out to several “Annette’s” that shared my maiden name. Fortunately, I had added my maiden name to my contact information.

I couldn’t believe it when I received her message. In fact, I could not even read it aloud to my husband. Every time I tried, I started crying. It felt quite miraculous to be found. Actually, it was the idea that my cousin wanted to find me which brought my tears. Facebook messages were followed by phone calls which will hopefully — eventually — be followed by in-person visits.

But just feeling a connection to my cousins has rekindled my relationship to my dad. I’ve so missed having a dad. There was something about talking to the daughter and granddaughter of his sister which made me feel close to him — a feeling I wasn’t expecting.

I wish parents whose marriages end, could learn how to co-parent in such a way that children never feel separated or isolated from their family. I’ve heard they even have counselors these days that will help parents learn how to do this. Sounds like an endeavor worth whatever the cost!

I’ve not walked in the shoes of a divorced parent. So I may not be in the best position of giving advice to such parents. But I have experienced divorce as a child of divorce. And just maybe that gives me some authority to speak on this subject.

I know the pain, anger, resentment, confusion and loss that children feel when their parents separate — especially young children. And while I have no doubt that divorce is the right thing to do in many cases — I’m certain it was right for my mom — I think it imperative that divorced parents be able to see beyond their own feelings and attend to their children’s. And if they don’t think they are up to the task, then they need to get help from someone who is.

I like to think that if my dad had not died, forty-two years would not have passed before I had the pleasure of spending time with cousins. But like I said, it’s never too late to start. And I thank Facebook for giving me the opportunity!


Why lie?

by Annette Bridges. ©2010. All rights reserved.

I wonder if any of us can honestly say we have never told a lie. I certainly can’t! Some say that lying is an unavoidable part of human nature, but does this make telling a lie acceptable, excusable and always forgivable?

My first lessons about lying and truth-telling came in childhood with the folktale of George Washington and the cherry tree, along with his famous declaration “I cannot tell a lie.” Then there was the story of Pinocchio with his nose growing with each lie he told. As a young child, I can still remember carefully examining my nose in the mirror after I spoke an “untruth” or in some cases, when there were truths I didn’t admit.

Much has been written on the subject of lying, and there are many viewpoints on the ethics and impact of lying. Some believe that lying is always wrong. And yet these same folks often add — unless there is a good reason for it. This addendum seems to concede that lying is not always wrong!

There are various types of lies, or so they say, as well as a variety of motives for telling them. But one simple definition for a lie is “a false statement deliberately presented as being true meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.”

Of course, there may be times when lying is useful, practical and even necessary. This could be when someone is under serious threat from an enemy.

I suspect “white lies” are the ones that most of us would own up to. Who hasn’t told a friend we loved her new haircut, when we really thought it looked hideous? Or who hasn’t told their mom that her gift was just what they always wanted, when they didn’t mean it?

In these instances whether a lie was told or the truth was omitted, the purpose was to protect someone’s feelings. But sometimes people tell “fibs” to get out of trouble or get what they want.

There have been times when I wanted to avoid an argument and thought it better to leave out a few details. And there have been many more times when I actually hid my shopping bags from my husband to conceal the truth out of a desire to avoid confrontation or a belabored explanation.

So I wasn’t surprised when I read that another reason people tell lies is to protect themselves or to avoid punishment. Other motivations for lying include trying to look good socially and gain politically. So I guess I shouldn’t be so shocked to hear a politician trying to downplay a lie he told as “misplaced words.”

Other words for a “lie” include telling a whopper, a falsity or falsehood, a fabrication or a misrepresentation. And when someone lies under oath, we call it perjury.

Regardless of the preferred word choice, I suspect all lies are not without consequence. And some can result in bad and even deadly consequences. Consider the implications behind Adolf Hitler’s famous words about lying: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”

If we all agree that there are times when lying isn’t so bad, I think we must also agree that lying can be harmful.

One of the destructive effects is that lying diminishes trust. And lying can make informed decisions difficult. In fact, lying can result in a decision that would not have otherwise been made.

This may be why some philosophers say lying is bad because language is essential to societies and therefore carries the obligation to use it truthfully. Some warn that lying can become a generally accepted practice and that it can become hard for people to trust each other or to trust the institutions of society.

And some warn that lying can cause social cohesion to be weakened and conclude that society collapses when no one is able to believe anyone else.

I don’t know about you, my friends, but I am one of those wary members of society who doesn’t assume everything I hear or read is truthful. But lately, I’m taking a hard look at myself and scrutinizing the times when I’m tempted to hide or alter the truth. Why am I ever inclined to hide my purchases from my husband, for example? Have I allowed lying to become an accepted practice in my own life?

Perhaps it’s time we listen to the Psalmist who wrote, “Let the lying lips be put to silence” (Psalms 31:18) and consider how our relationships, schools, businesses and society at large can be improved and benefitted by speaking and publishing the truth. At least I am beginning to ask myself, “Why lie?”

To forgive oneself

by Annette Bridges. © 2007. All rights reserved.

Persistent memories of injustice can make forgiving seem unimaginable, if not impossible. Yet at the same time, those memories can impede individual progress. For me the need has more often been in learning to forgive myself rather than others.

The commemorations of last April’s shootings at Virginia Tech reminded me of how I’ve had to confront past events and learn to forgive myself. The following comment by Alexandra Asseily, founder of “The Forgiveness Garden” in Beirut, Lebanon, caught my attention: “When the memory controls us, we are then puppets of the past.” The quote was included in a recent Christian Science Monitor article that discussed “The Power of Forgiveness,” a PBS documentary given in a special screening at Virginia Tech, where students and faculty continue to recover (“At Virginia Tech, a film asks, ‘Can we forgive?’, ” Amy Green, September 21, 2007).

Individuals who experience the kind of trauma those students experienced often struggle with guilt—not simply for having survived, but for actions they didn’t take. They often believe that in some way they were responsible for, or contributed to, endangering others.

Truly the inability to forgive oneself keeps us “puppets of the past,” as Asseily aptly stated. Holding on to past events can catch us unawares, as they unexpectedly rewind and continue to replay in our minds. That was certainly my experience. But going to God enabled me to move from self-condemnation to self-discovery. I hadn’t experienced grave danger, but my prayers revealed that God loved me unconditionally, and I was able to appreciate myself as His child and shed self-condemnation.

Feelings of deep dismay had been with me since my own college days, over my response—or what I thought to be a lack of response—to several situations. In the first, I’d had conversations with two friends who only days later had committed suicide. I anguished over what I might have said differently. Further, I rebuked myself for not having alerted anyone else about our talks.

Then, a professor tried to sell me a good exam grade for sexual favors. But I never reported him. Nor did I notify the police when I was stalked by another individual. Instead, I changed jobs and relocated.

For years I couldn’t forgive myself—convinced that my nonaction probably resulted in harm to others. But a fresh read of Jesus’ experience with the adulterous woman showed me how to forgive myself. I’d always thought of this particular story as a lesson in not condemning others. The woman had been caught in adultery, yet Jesus told those ready to stone her that whoever hadn’t sinned should be the one to throw the first stone.

However, it was the story’s conclusion that brought the lesson home to me. When Jesus saw that everyone had left, he asked the woman if anyone had accused her. But no one had, and Jesus said, “Neither do I” (John 8:1–11, Eugene Peterson, The Message).

Suddenly I saw that if Jesus didn’t condemn her, then she shouldn’t condemn herself. And I realized that this was true for me, too.

This prayer-inspired news felt like a proclamation, and gave me freedom from years of torment. I saw that I could give myself the same love that Jesus gave the woman—and that God naturally gives to each of us. I may not always get everything right, but as I remain humble and expectant, I can perceive God’s guidance, which is always at hand. My desire to love and do the right thing is a powerful prayer. I now see, as well, that I’m not responsible for the actions of others.

Progress is God’s law for all of His children. Forgiving ourselves and others enables us to put memories to rest and move forward. We may not be able to change the past, but we can learn to do better right now, which necessarily influences tomorrow. Prayer to forgive oneself, as well as others, is a step that individuals—schools, communities, and even nations—can take to leave mistakes and regrets behind. All that remains are the lessons learned and the opportunities waiting for each of us to improve the present. Such prayer broadens one’s point of view to seek solutions for the greater good, and at the same time supports the impetus for progress. Then all humanity can move a step forward.

Every day can be an Easter

by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.

When I think of Easter, I think of one of the most precious gifts Christ Jesus gave to mankind. The promise of resurrection – of life, and not of death.

At this time of year, many focus on the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. I embrace his crucifixion as the supreme model of unconditional love and forgiveness. He unselfishly bore our infirmities. And I’m humbled.

But I can’t stop there. Especially in light of the fact that the crucifixion was not the end of the story. Evil didn’t win the day. How important for humanity that his life example continued with his resurrection and ultimately, his ascension.

Renowned spirituality and health author, Mary Baker Eddy, writes much about the life and works of Christ Jesus and shares poignant ideas about the meaning of his example. These ideas are found in her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

Of his crucifixion she wrote, “Despised and rejected of men, returning blessing for cursing, he taught mortals the opposite of themselves, even the nature of God; and when error felt the power of Truth, the scourge and the cross awaited the great Teacher.” And she describes the cross Jesus carried “up the hill of grief” as “the world’s hatred of Truth and Love.”

Truth, as well as Life and Love, are among many Biblical synonyms for God, and error, the opposite of Truth, is one of many names Eddy uses synonymously with evil. And unfortunately, mankind has often found itself being misguided and controlled by evil in some form or fashion – dishonesty, jealousy, hypocrisy, slander, hate and all the etceteras.

Many have questioned why Jesus allowed his enemies to crucify him since they believed he had the power to stop them.

But might that be where one of the incredible lessons of the resurrection comes in? He allowed his enemies to attempt the destruction of his mortal life. But his resurrection gave us proof of his immortal life. And as Mary Baker Eddy wrote, “Nothing could kill this Life of man.”

What a promise for each of us!

His example teaches us that we can never be separated from Life, God — the source of our spiritual, indestructible, eternal life.

Can’t this knowledge also become our resurrection, in a sense, right now?

Think of the many ways we may feel like we’re being crucified today.

Overwhelmed with debt that seems impossible to get out of. Battered with illness leaving our body weary for peace. Depressed with loss and loneliness with dim prospects of a brighter tomorrow. Feeling misunderstood or not appreciated.

Might Easter give us the promise of being resurrected from such crucifixions?

Remember the disciples’ mistaken grief over the death of their Master. And their hesitancy to believe his resurrection could really happen. Christ Jesus later upbraided them for their unbelief, as the Gospel of Mark tells us.

Have we given up hope?

Perhaps it’s possible to believe no more that something can forever destroy our hope and peace – or even our health.

Is it possible that such knowledge, such confident expectation, could roll away the stone from our tomb of despair?

What if the revival of our faith and hope could bring renewed strength, regenerated courage and restored confidence. Such a faith might proclaim that nothing can extinguish our health, our hopes, our dreams, and our peace that is given by God to all of his beloved children.

And today could be an Easter for you and me!