Sandra Aldrich pulled up to her usual gasoline station and, to her horror, discovered that it had switched from full-service to self-service operations.
Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem. But nothing was normal for Aldrich at that time. Her husband's terminal cancer was pushing more and more of life's everyday duties onto her tired shoulders.She sat in the family car staring at the gasoline pump, ashamed that she knew nothing about how to make it work.
"I was absolutely sure that if I tried to turn on that gas pump, I would blow up our entire end of the county," she said, recalling that painful moment almost a decade ago.
Someone eventually came along and helped her learn how to pump gas. The stranger, without knowing it, helped a woman who would soon be a young widow learn a lesson about grief.
That lesson: Those who work with grief-stricken people must remember that death touches life in ways that are ordinary and mundane, as well as awesome and profound.
Ministry in the shadow of death can mean helping someone cope with a gash in the soul. But it also may mean helping a person balance a checkbook or take kids to school, said Aldrich, senior editor of "Focus on the Family" magazine in Pomona, Calif.
"Sometimes it doesn't help to ask, `What can we do for you to help?' When your life has turned upside down, you need all kinds of help. You may not even be able to say what kinds of help you need," she said. "Sometimes you just need to volunteer . . . . Ask if you can take their car to the car wash. Ask if they need food or want to go shopping. Be sensitive, but take the initiative."
Specialists know there are many different kinds and stages of grief. A person whose spouse has died after a fight with cancer will almost certainly need a different kind of care than a parent whose young child has been killed instantly in a car wreck.
Aldrich's heart-felt message on grief, before an audience of Christian leaders in Colorado Springs, Colo., came one day after the city was rocked by the deaths of 25 in an airliner crash and nine in a fire at a home for the elderly.
Each grieving person is an individual with special needs, said Aldrich, who worked with school leaders after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. But those who want to help the grieving can follow a few practical guidelines:
- Respect their grief and pain. On her first day back after her husband's death, Aldrich was shocked when a fellow teacher greeted her with, "Hey lady! Glad to see you back at work!"
- Encourage them to express themselves. "Whatever you do, don't say, `Come on, you don't feel like that. You don't really feel that way.' " In some cases, it helps if a grieving person pours private feelings into a letter or letters to the deceased.
- Accept differences. Some people cry, but some don't. Some people are helped by religious messages of comfort. Others are not. When in doubt, offer help. But honor the person's response.
- Don't preach that faith takes away the pain. "I've actually heard people say to someone who is grieving, `Good Christians don't cry' . . . Saying something like that can create an emotional burden that no one can handle," Aldrich said.
- Know that a person may feel a backlash of fatigue and grief months, or even many years, after the loss of a loved on. Hidden pain can linger like an unexploded bomb.
- Finally, accept that anger - at God, the deceased and even themselves - is normal. "People need to get that anger out," Aldrich said. "God's shoulders are pretty big. He can handle our anger . . . . We can't offend God with our questions."