Within a two-week period, three families in my circle have been devastated by an untimely death. A young couple lost an infant son who died two days after birth. A family and huge extended group lost a pillar in the recovery community who was felled by a brain bleed in middle age. A healer lost a young adult daughter to suicide.
Some sorrows are too deep for words.
I didn’t know any of these precious souls personally, but I deeply care about the families who loved them. I also know loss, and I remember the times when the effort of breathing seemed more than I could sustain. I saw that paralyzed state in the faces of my friends, and I ache for them.
With each piece of shattering news, especially as I watched a tiny casket being lowered into the gaping soil, I thought of the phrase “groans too deep for words.” It comes from Romans 8:26-27 and follows a paragraph that compares the world and its people as groaning in the difficult times with pains like those of childbirth:
“Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray [or can’t even manage to try – my addition], it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition [waiting for deliverance – my addition], and keeps us present before God.” The Message
Oh, the pain of sorrows and sighs too deep for words! What an apt description for the wrenching parts of our human experience. I’ve also seen how uncomfortable we are with pain, whether our own or with those we love. We want to assuage, or better yet, remove it. If that’s not possible, we want to circumvent it with a spiritual bypass: some holy sounding reframe that will ease the sting or at least make it more palatable.
I heard several of these supposedly comforting comments as I interacted with these hurting families, and frankly, I wanted to scream BS!
Yes, I believe fully in God’s power to redeem our pain, and I experience that grace every day. But that perspective comes after a process, and some pains are only redeemed in the existential sense, not practically. Loved ones who have crossed the chasm that separates them from this life are never coming back to our earthly world. No nice words change that loss, and in fact, I believe they insult it.
Like childbirth, there is no way through the pain but through it. The path forward requires hanging on through excruciating contractions and pushing, or enduring a piercing belly cut. Sometimes recovery from either option influences the rest of your life.
What does help during anguish is acknowledging it and surrendering to it. What also helps is the company of others who stay with you through the pain — people who hold your hand, offer ice chips, rub your back, remind you to breathe, or keep quiet vigil in the room or from afar. They text or send flowers or offer unrelenting prayers. They show up with chicken noodle soup and chocolate pie and leave them on the porch if you don’t feel like receiving them in person. And they know that these gifts are even more needed weeks, months, and sometimes years afterward than they are in the moment, which is usually blessedly tempered by shock.
Presence is what helps pain. Seeing evidence of others being with us in the sorrow is what helps us endure. This is the gift of the Spirit that God provided us: the Presence that assures we are not alone. The Spirit also keeps us present with God by translating our wordless sighs and aching groans.
Now that’s holy space.
Marnie C. Ferree