When artistic people address grief, they reveal more than their level of artistic talent and design skills. The imagery, composition, and word choices make powerful statements about their worldview. One example I came across recently is a line of empathy cards by Emily McDowell Studio. The designs are text-heavy, meeting the viewer with minimal imagery and gritty, plainspoken messages.
I want to commend Ms. McDowell for tackling the challenge of creating empathy cards. Grief is life-altering and I know how difficult it is to create designs that are not trite. I appreciated artists who pull this off with honesty and a sincere desire to communicate the universal nature of loss.
McDowell’s lemon-covered card (below), for example, is spot on. I’ve observed over the past 6 years that as soon as I share about my little boy’s death (February 2014) the very next line out of the listener’s mouth is about a child they knew or heard about who also had a rare condition and died young. It’s startlingly predictable and I’ve heard from many other bereaved parents who’ve found that just as they open up about their deep, personal loss, the listener reroutes the conversation. I think I can speak for many bereaved parents by saying, “Please, acknowledge the tragedy of my loss before you mention another child’s death!” This card cuts to the heart of a well-known frustration, especially within circles of child-loss.
In the same way, this card makes the point that minimizing another’s pain by analogy is a poor way to show empathy. Each loss is unique and all analogies fail at some point; they especially fail when they are false, i.e. the loss of a child compared to the loss of a pet rodent.
The previous two cards communicate clearly how important it is to acknowledge the significance of another’s loss. The underlying plea of the bereaved is:
My loss has meaning!
Ironically, if we take a close look at some other cards Ms. McDowell has created, they wind up working against this idea!
This denial of “a reason” is often comforting for those in the middle of the emotional problem of pain because they cannot conceive of any possible reason why something so horrific would happen. But if it were truly the case that it happened for “no reason”, then why would we be upset about the loss in the first place? Why not just wave our hands in the air and say, “Oh well, things happen.” If it didn’t happen for a reason, doesn’t that trivialize the loss even more? Just because we can’t comprehend what the reason might be, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Psalm 33:11 tell us, “…the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” There are many other passages of scripture that affirm God’s sovereignty over all things and His purposes for each individual life. The records of the life of Joseph and Daniel are two of my favorites that highlight how God fulfills His purposes through tragic and difficult circumstances. The reason for a loss may be unknown to us, but it’s not unknown to God. God’s purposes give life meaning!
This card attempts to show empathy by accusing God of “poor planning”. Here are some comments left underneath the post on FB:
Is it honesty? Is God really a “terrible planner”?
As tempted as we might be to blame God, that’s not the answer. Human sin is the ultimate cause of evil and suffering in the world, not God’s poor planning. The Bible tells us why evil, suffering, and death exist in the world. It also tells us that God is the Creator of all things and is in complete control:
“You alone are the LORD
You have made the heavens,
The heaven of heavens with all their host,
The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them
You give life to all of them
And the heavenly host bows down before You. (Neheniah 9:6)
The key to showing empathy is not to deny God’s purposes, nor to blame Him, but to remind others that sin is the cause of suffering and death in the world, and that God planned a way to redeem us from our sins and give us the hope of being united with our loved ones for eternity. Real honesty is telling the bereaved that the gospel is God’s Perfect Plan that will ultimately dry every one of our tears, if we only repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The next time we have the opportunity to comfort someone who is grieving, let’s not trivialize their loss by dismissing God’s sovereign control or blaming Him. And whatever you do, don’t bring up your dead hamster.