He was a man in his late sixties. He had the same job for years and had always been a valued employee. But currently, he was close to being fired.
His grandfather had built the church he once attended. Now, he never went. No one questioned it or stopped by to invite him back.
He went out to the mailbox one day and got a letter that made him so angry he didn’t know what to do. He practically ran to the phone (back in those days, it was anchored to the wall) and called the letter-sender.
When the young woman answered, he curtly said, “I got your letter today. I just want to ask one thing. Why the hell do you care?”
Now, this young social worker could have done a lot of things. She could have answered with anger in return. She could have gotten self-righteous. She could have done nothing at all, saying “I’m sorry you feel that way,” professionally ended the conversation, and left this man to his bitterness.
Instead, she sensed an opportunity to do something, even though she didn’t know what to do. So, she let him talk about how everyone–family, friends, preacher, etc. had seemed to disappear from his life after the death of his beloved wife from cancer. During the phone call, this man did everything in his power to anger the social worker, bait her, encourage her to join the party who had seemingly turned their backs on him.
She didn’t. She was young, and could really get defensive at times. She had her wounds too. But that day, God was in this. Before the end of the conversation, the man agreed to meet with this worker, as part of her Hospice after-care program.
The letter which so incensed him, was something that was supposed to be standard, but had been neglected in the past, due to staff turnover. The worker and a co-worker came in determined to make that part of a busy regional hospital efficient again. To that end, they sent letters on the 3 month, 6 month, and most importantly the year anniversary of the death of the person to the next of kin. Those letters offered support in the form of counseling, telephone support, referral links, whatever the person needed.
It wasn’t flowery or preachy. It was simple and inviting. Some immediately responded. Some never called.
This fellow called.
The worker, new to grief counseling, knew that she had her work cut out for her. She knew the stages of grief. She knew that grief could come out as anger. As a Christian, she understood that this was not the time to try to make a convert, but could mention God if the door was opened. On the way to the first of many trips to her new client’s place of employment, she asked God to give her the right words. She knew that she didn’t have them on her own.
The farm equipment dealership had generously offered their conference room to the social worker when they heard she was going to be involved. They paid for as much or as little time as their employee needed instead of asking that he take leave time. It was, in their view, a last ditch effort to help a once valuable employee who was losing them business. He had been a great salesman, wonderful with people, albeit a little rough around the edges. Now, he was yelling at both vendors and would be customers. He couldn’t do his job. They didn’t want to fire him, but that was looking like it was their only answer.
The worker mostly listened for the first part of the initial session. She heard an amazing amount of grief, rage and hurt. And you know, it wasn’t just about losing his wife. That part was there–because he really loved his wife, had put her on a pedestal that decades of marriage had never caused her to fall off of. Yet, with the aftermath of her death, he lost his friends, he looked like he was about to lose his job, and most importantly, he had lost his faith in God.
He talked about how his grandfather had helped build his small country church where he was a lifelong member. How he had willingly given time, service, talent and money whenever the church had need. Yet, when his wife, a former school teacher beloved by everyone passed, a strange thing happened. No one called after the funeral. No one came by the visit, not even the preacher.
One day, walking on his farm, he had a pistol with him. And–he planned to use it. He could see no reason for staying alive. The only person who made life worthwhile was gone. And no one else seemed to give a damn about him.
The worker offered to call the preacher (was tempted to call him out on his neglect) but this man, her new client, said no. The preacher was just a man, and the client didn’t like him much anyway. But there was someone he was angry with, and he wanted some answers, pronto. That was what she could help him with. The one who took his wife away.
That being God.
The worker didn’t shame him, or tell him he was going to go to hell for being mad at the creator. You see, she had been mad at God before too. Maybe not for as good a reason, but she’d definitely yelled at the heavens, demanding answers. Answers that took years in coming, but once given, were received with more mature gratitude.
Instead, words came out of her mouth that even surprised her. She said, “God can take every bit of anger you want to throw at him. Talk to him. He wants to hear from you.”
Now, I don’t recall (because I was that young worker) much about what else we talked about. We had a few more lengthy sessions where he poured out his feeling, doubts, regrets and questions. He asked me things that I thought might be more suited to ask a priest, but I did my best, always asking God, prior to seeing my client, to give me what was needed to be said.
We talked about how he always thought he could ride his family’s coat-tails to heaven. Or those of his deeply devout and spiritual wife. He never thought about personally knowing God. Didn’t know that he needed to. With my varied experience in many denominations with many different ideas about how to be ‘saved,’ I didn’t give him a glossy pamphlet with some easy five step plan of salvation.
I’m not sure I told him anything about that at all. But I did tell him that it had to be individual relationship. No one had coat-tails big enough for us to hop on and make that trip to heaven. We had to reach out. We had to receive the grace. It wasn’t about being good enough–no one could ever be. It was about coming before God privately, knowing that our need was so great that only God could provide for it. And that there was nothing, literally nothing we could not say. No need to use our polished ‘preacher language’ around God. He already knew. He knew our hearts, our souls, our very worst and most sacrilegious moments.
And He loved us anyway.
Our counseling time ended well. His grown niece and nephew got involved again in his life. Upon meeting me, they expressed concern that I might be looking for a wealthy husband (I wasn’t.) They encouraged him to terminate counseling, and last I heard he was engaged to a woman closer to his age and worldly possessions.
It irked me that his relatives misunderstood my purpose or motives for working with him. First and foremost, to this day, there is nothing more sacred to me that maintaining professional boundaries with clients. However, they didn’t know that. What took the irritation away was knowing this man was smiling again. He was again successful in his job. He’d found love in his life with a nice lady. And best of all, and perhaps for the first time, he’d found faith–real faith in God.
These days, several decades after my youthful professional experience, I sometimes remember that client. At the time, I felt incompetent. I had the diploma, I had the job, and I had the brain pan knowledge. However, when the moment came to act–I wasn’t so sure what to do. So, I asked the one who did know–I asked God. He gave me words, and through His grace (not my competency) a life was changed.
Today, if you have grieving people in your life, its okay not to know what to say. Who does? How do we explain the departure of good, godly loving people in our lives? How do we offer comfort about that which we could likely not be comforted if it were us? All these years later, I don’t think I would change a thing about what I stumbled onto.
I stumbled onto God and some very real truths about His nature.
God is okay with all our emotions, even the most negative of them. It wasn’t his choice for us to be thrown out into this unpredictable world with its tragedy and unexplained mess. However, when life happens, as it does to all of us, in this broken world, He is there. He can take all of our anger, as well as all of our love. He’s not afraid or rejecting of either.
The best gift we can offer to a grieving soul, or anyone, is the encouragement to take everything to God. Put it in the mighty hands best able to handle it. It might not magically go away, or make sense for a long time–years. But the change will begin. God is the one who is always available, doesn’t have easy answers to hard questions, and who loves us with a love that extends beyond the grave.