because I couldn't have said it better if i tried...
When we say to grieving people, “Oh, I can’t imagine” we might be saying “I don’t want to imagine.”
I say that because, if we took a few minutes and put ourselves inside that person’s situation, we would (in part) imagine.
And I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that anything less than that is not love or care.
Now, there might be people who say, “But I’m not a mom…” or “I’ve never lost a baby…”
“…when someone loses their baby, I really can’t imagine, because I’ve never been there.”
(I’m using my example, a stillbirth, as the example here. You really could fill-in-the-blank with any tragedy or heartbreak you’re seeing someone through.)
And while that’s valid on some level, it really isn’t the whole story. I have dear friends who aren’t married, have never been pregnant, and yet are extremely sensitive and caring about things they haven’t experienced. It just means that they’ve taken the time to enter into someone else’s heartbreak.
And no, you won’t imagine it perfectly, because it is what it is–an imagining…an image. You will probably never understand what it’s like to labor for hours with a dead baby. You’ll probably never understand how it feels to have terrors in the night, horrified that you forgot the baby somewhere or awakening to imaginary baby cries.
And I’m not trying to be overly dramatic here. These are real things that really happen.
I think another reason we shy away from imagining is that it’s not going to be pretty or comfortable. It’s often horrific and terrifying and depressing. But it’s your friend’s reality.
Real love gets into the trenches of grief and suffering. It imagines. It lets it’s mind’s eye linger. Real love will not avert its eyes. It won’t say, “Your disaster is too much for me.”
As I’ve watched friends walk through tragedies like mine in the past few years, or some others walk through tragedies very different from mine, I’m trying to be really mindful to not say, “I can’t imagine.” Because in some cases, it’s all I have. It’s the only window I have, with my puny little brain, into prayer, into continued love and care for that person–imagining their pain, imagining their grief or loss, imagining their ongoing need and brokenness.
Imagination is what will take you closer, even when you feel very distant from the situation.
I think we underestimate imagination. We shut it down too quickly, afraid we’ll either presume too much understanding or that it’ll just hurt too much.
You might be wondering
What do I say in that uncomfortable moment, when all I want to say is ‘I can’t imagine?’ What are some alternatives?I think it would be okay to say, in the most heartfelt and heartbroken way, “I can only imagine.” And then go on from there, telling them some things that you’ve been thinking and feeling on their behalf, how it’s led you to pray, whatever. This communicates a love, a presence in their pain–even if from a distance.
Let’s gather the grieving in our imaginings. You might find it to be a powerful point of connecting, doing what you can to understand.