I’d been dreading it since the moment I walked out of Ian’s ICU room for the very last time. I remember walking into the pristine, whitewashed hallway with sunshine pouring through oversized windows, and thinking that it should have been raining. I’ve always clung tightly to the irrational belief that the weather ought to mirror how I feel inside, and it seemed unjust, somehow, that the sun could shine on that day while my heart shattered into a thousand irretrievable pieces. My brother Stephen just held my sister Emily and I as tears streamed down our faces, and I thought about how for the first time in years, he was the only brother. The weight of two sisters was on his shoulders alone, and I wished we still had Ian to share it. The three of us stood alone, right outside the room where our brother’s body lay on a hospital bed. Three where four belonged, and the silent scream of raw emptiness enveloped us.
For the first time since I was five years old, I only had one living brother. Since that day Ian died, I have quietly dreaded the moment that someone would ask me how many siblings I had, unsure as to how I would answer. Maybe it seems like a simple thing to you, but when faced with the reality that every answer might beg further questions which might beg a story about my little brother dying of cancer…well, I wasn’t certain that I could tell that story over and over again for the rest of my life. Not without breaking over and over again—and I find that most strangers don’t want my mascara stains on their shoulders. And what to say? I have two brothers and one sister. I HAD two brothers. Do I still have Ian? I have a brother and a sister and another brother in heaven. No, that’s too Precious Moments and Ian would hate it. I have another brother but he’s gone now. Too vague? It makes it sound like he up and joined the circus. I have a brother and a sister. Incomplete.
Nothing felt quite right. I’d rolled it over and over again in my mind like monotonous waves endlessly crashing on the same little stretch of sand, and still nothing. Finally, last Friday night at Ashley’s bachelorette party, the moment I’d been anxiously awaiting arrived with no pomp or circumstance at all. One of her sweet friends looked at me over a plate of pita and hummus, and asked if I had any siblings.
My heart was eerily calm, and without thinking at all I smiled and answered simply: Yes. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest of four.
That was the end of it, and that’s the way it will forever be. When pressed, I will briefly tell the story as unfortunate listeners awkwardly stumble through some sort of response.
Can we talk about the response for just a moment? I think so often, we don’t know what to say when confronted with pain. Any kind of pain, really—it makes us uncomfortable, and so startled, we jump. We jump to fix it, jump to change it, jump to change the subject.
May I humbly offer a suggestion? It’s deceptively simple, really. When someone is breaking in front of you, sit still and listen compassionately—with your whole heart. And then look your friend squarely in the eyes, and repeat after me:
That SUCKS. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.
That’s it. When broken humanity is confronted with the searing shards of sin, the very last thing that we need is another tired platitude. Even the most well intended clichés hollowly mock real pain. When the knife of divorce violently tears through a family, when miscarriage steals every birthday and little girl tea party and Christmas morning a Mom and Dad will never get to have, when loneliness looms large and cancer takes curly hair and coffee dates and hand squeezes, what we cannot offer is a solution to what has been broken. We cannot make it better. [Please do not tell me that Ian is better off in heaven because while I’m sure it’s great, I would prefer that he were sitting in my living room right now. How’s that for selfish?] What we can and should offer is a God that has walked every inch of broken humanity, and weeps with us in the midst of our pain. A God who hates it more than we do—so much, in fact, that he climbed up on a cross and was broken in our place so that we would only ever have to experience the shadow of pain. [And oh, the shadow stings! Praise Him for saving us from the real thing.] We can offer a God who is redeeming every broken thing, and will one day restore the world to what He intended. And until that day, we can offer fierce, unafraid love. A love that says I can’t make it better, but I will sit right here with you and hurt too.
That sucks. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.