The heat of Texas summer does weird things to a car. I discovered that on the way to Bible study one evening several years ago. I’d driven home from work earlier that afternoon in stop-and-go traffic, working the clutch on my ten-year-old Kia. It squeaked its disapproval of both the traffic and the 100-degree heat baking the pavement. A few hours later on our way to small group, the car had apparently had enough. My wife and I were headed down a busy four-lane road when we came to a stoplight. When I went to release the clutch after the light flipped to green, the pedal came up but the clutch stayed stubbornly depressed.
If there’s anything less bearable than the August sun in Texas, it’s the seething irritation that radiates from Texas drivers when they have to maneuver around a car that’s stopped in their way. As I performed all kinds of contortions in the driver’s seat to try and figure out why the clutch wasn’t rising like it should, angry drivers let me know exactly what they thought of my predicament.
There’s something about being stuck in the middle of a busy road that leaves you feeling very alone. You’re deprived of the ability to move down the street like everyone else. It’s an ability we take so thoroughly for granted that you don’t even notice that you have it until it’s gone. The people who have to swerve around your stranded car do very little to help you feel better about the situation. In fact, their angry words and blaring horns make you feel far worse.
And all you can do is wait. Time is the only thing that will get you moving on the road again—time spent waiting for a tow truck, or a mechanic, or, in my case, the clutch’s master cylinder to cooperate.
Fortunately on that warm Texas evening, I didn’t have to wait very long. After a few frustrated minutes, the plastic cylinder that worked the hydraulics released, and the transmission engaged enough for me to creep in first gear to the next light. I managed to grind through the gears enough to get all the way to our destination. Night fell and the air cooled and the transmission breathed a sigh of relief as the clutch cooperated on the drive home. It was a happy ending.
But when it comes to grief, the happy ending rarely comes so fast. Experiencing the death of a loved one is a lot like being stranded on the side of the road. You’re moving along through life at seventy miles per hour. You hardly notice the scenery of everyday living passing by until a death rockets into your life. Suddenly, like a car without a clutch, your life comes to a complete stop. Literally everything you took for granted moments ago now seems like a luxury you can no longer enjoy.
But the pain of grief comes from more than just the trauma of a loved one dying. Grief is feeling alone and stranded as you watch everyone around you keep on living—as if the world hasn’t come to a complete stop. For you it has. For them, it’s just another Sunday.
The summer before my senior year of high school, my family and I took our customary vacation to Bethany Beach in Delaware. That very first day we set up our umbrella and blanket and lathered up with sunscreen. My younger sister and brother and I joined our dad in the water—a welcome relief from the summer sun. But within minutes, terror struck. My dad had been manhandled by a wave, which nearly broke his neck and left him temporarily paralyzed. He was face-down in a few inches of briny water. Face-down for far too many precious seconds as his breath left him.
What followed sits fuzzy in my memory—like all my pictures of my two-year-old who never stops moving. My sister and I pulled my dad out of the water and he wasn’t breathing. A man covered in tattoos from head to toe ran to help and immediately began CPR. Eventually, he resuscitated my dad and a helicopter flew him away to Baltimore’s shock/trauma unit where, after emergency surgery, my dad’s life and limbs were safe. It was, needless to say, my least favorite vacation.
But one thing also stands out crystal-clear in my head when I think back on those traumatic few days. I just wanted a friend to sit with me in the cavernous lobby of Baltimore’s hospital. I tried to call someone who’d sit on the phone and just talk. Who’d pull over next to me while I was stranded on life’s highway and wait with me. But everyone I knew in youth group or from school was busy going on with their life without me. So I was stuck. And alone.
The feeling didn’t change when I faced grief again six years later. As brain cancer claimed my mom’s life, I found myself once again stopped on the road feeling so very alone. All I wanted was a friend who’d stop and wait with me. Someone who was okay letting life pass them by too. Who’d pause in the pain and simply be.
We’ll all face grief of some kind in life. But more often we’ll have the chance to join someone who’s hurting in their grief. It’s what the Bible calls mourning with those who mourn. And it’s the most powerful thing you can do to fight the monster of grief.
If you know someone who’s hurting—whose world has ground to a halt—the absolute best thing you can do is pull over and stop your life too. Just for a bit, wait. The tow truck will come along—you don’t have to offer help. But you can stop and wait.