I felt really sad this week on reading a news story about a Polish mountaineer, Tomasz Mackiewicz, who was lost while climbing in the Himalayas. A rescue team managed to get to and save his climbing partner, French woman Elisabeth Revol, but they could not reach Tomasz on one of Pakistan’s most deadly mountains – Nanga Parbat. The rescuers wrote on social media: “The rescue for Tomasz is unfortunately not possible. Because of the weather and altitude it would put the life of rescuers in extreme danger. It’s a terrible and painful decision. We are in deep sadness. We are crying.” It was the acknowledgement of crying for the dead and the deep expression of empathy for the bereaved, those left behind, that I found most profound and moving. Of course we do it – we cry – but we rarely say we do, talk about it, acknowledge it. “We are crying.” Three words. It gives us all permission to do the same. I don’t know Tomasz, but it doesn’t matter. We all feel grief. We all cry. It makes us human.
It is a curious thing how people express grief or deal with the grief of others. There is a spectrum of behaviour. None are right or wrong, but some modes of behaviour might serve us better than others. One option: pretend not to see, cross the road and run. Another option: say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, shake a hand, look to your feet and shake your head sadly. Third option: ignore it, talk about the weather, it wouldn’t do to remind them. Option four: sit down and cry alongside them. And there are a hundred more options besides.
Not so long ago, I read an interesting analysis presenting one viewpoint as to how an expression of sympathy might differ from an expression of empathy. It was described in the following terms: You are walking down the street when you suddenly fall down an unmarked hole. There is no ladder so you can’t climb out of the hole. You are helpless, desolate. You call up to the street above for help. Someone hears your call from the other side of the street, but they’re so horrified that you’ve fallen in that they can’t bear to cross over to take a look down the hole in case what they see is too much for them to bear – so they rush on by. This is neither sympathy nor empathy but denial. Another person crosses the street and calls down to see if you are ok. They even sit awhile and talk – maybe go so far as to nip into a café, buy you a sandwich and a cup of tea and lower it down. Eventually, though, they’ll move on with their business, wish you luck in finding your way out and head off down the street, back to their own life having expressed sympathy. Then there are those – like the mountain rescue team – who have a look into the hole, are appalled with your predicament and begin to work out how they can help you. It might very well mean getting into the hole with you for a bit, or, in the case of Tomasz and Elisabeth, joining the mountain rescue effort. In full empathy they are with you: practical, offering solutions, and, if it comes to it, not afraid to cry alongside you about your loss.
I have a friend called Andy Raine who lives on Lindisfarne, Holy Island in the North of England. Andy is part of the Northumbria Community and he has written some wise words about grief:
“Do not hurry
as you walk with grief;
it does not help the journey.
Walk slowly, pausing often:
Do not hurry
As you walk with grief.
Be not disturbed
By memories that come unbidden.
and let Christ speak for you
will be resolved in Him.
Be not disturbed.
Be gentle with the one
who walks with grief.
If it is you,
be gentle with yourself.
Take time, be gentle
As you walk with grief.”
(‘Walking With Grief’, Andy Raine)
Our friend, Sean McNicholl, formerly of Portrush, died yesterday in Madrid. God rest him. Alongside Blanca, Álvaro, Ramón and Eimear, we are crying.
One thought on “Good Grief”
Very well written.
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