24 June 2015

"Blessed are those who mourn..."

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” -Matthew 5:4
Yesterday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with posts about a particular section of Joel Osteen’s 2004 book Your Best Life Now. I don’t know what happened that this came up again now, nearly a decade of the book was published, but the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter. It deserves discussion.

A bit of background: In an anecdote that spans a few pages, Osteen describes a bereft couple – he names them Judy and Phil – who continue to grieve the loss of their only son 15 years after his death. He contends that the couple’s self-indulgence and self-pity are to blame when, after an initial burst of condolence and caring, their friends stop offering words and acts of comfort, and when the couple remains demonstrably grief-stricken despite a period of longing that he deems to be socially acceptable. By way of an explanation for their prolonged grief, he asserts that it is not genuine, but rather a carefully crafted attention-seeking device: “They relish the attention that it brings them. They’ve lived that way for so long, self-pity has become part of their identity.” He dismissively categorizes these parents as “people who thrive on self-pity” because they “like the attention too much” to stop grieving.

Despite my discomfort (to put it mildly) with Pastor Osteen’s words, I originally decided not to post or comment because as a person who has not experienced the loss of a child, I felt like it wasn’t my place and because I felt unqualified to offer meaningful or original insight.

I’ve reconsidered.

Unlike Pastor Osteen, I have stood in that most painful and sacred space with a bereaved parent, and I’ve listened. I have held the hand of a bereaved mother as she shared intimate details of her child’s brief life with me, and I have looked at the dear, sweet faces of babies who died before they learned to walk or talk or ride a bicycle, or before they were even born. I have opened my heart and my consciousness to loss, and in so doing, I’ve learned that no one – not doctors, clinicians, friends, family, or clergy – can dictate the manner or length of another person’s grief. From all of that, I have gained a clearer understanding of the bereaved parent’s experience, though I would never presume to claim that experience as my own.

Perhaps most importantly, I am also a Christian who is deeply disturbed by the decidedly un-Christian behavior of Pastor Osteen.

Here, I’m not talking about the words he wrote in his book. He wrote them more than 10 years ago, and it’s entirely possible that he’s now more educated, more circumspect, and less hasty in drawing conclusions about grieving parents. What disturbs me is his reaction – or perhaps lack thereof – to the community of mourners who have asked repeatedly for him to explain and, indeed, apologize for the hurt he’s caused. Comments to his Facebook and Twitter pages have gone ignored, but for the quick and decisive deletion of nearly every unfavorable comment. He also quickly blocks critical users from both pages.

Today, having apparently decided not to offer thoughtful comment, Pastor Osteen passively aggressively tweeted the following: “You only have so much emotional energy each day. Don’t fight battles that don’t matter.” Now, I obviously can’t know Pastor Osteen’s thought or intent in crafting this tweet. If it wasn’t responsive to those asking that he reconsider his perspective on bereavement, then it was tremendously inauspicious timing. If it was, though, then what message does that send? Certainly not one that I hope would be espoused by a person I trust to serve as my spiritual guide and leader. More importantly, it reinforces his earlier message that bereaved parents and their pain are inconsequential, if not to the world, then most definitely to him.

To Pastor Osteen, I would ask, “If you, God forbid, lost a child, how long would you grieve? How much of your life would be affected by that child’s absence? How often would you think of your dead child, wishing he or she were still with you? When would you ‘get over’ that profound loss?” To those questions, if he answered honestly, I suspect he would say, “Forever. All of it. Every day. Never.”

Of Pastor Osteen, I would ask the following: Please react openly, not defensively (Matthew 12:25). Please remember the power of your words – to encourage, to educate, and to harm (Ephesians 4:29). Please remember that when Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, he promised us that mourners will be comforted, and that The Father’s comfort comes without caveat and without an expiration date (Matthew 5:4). Please understand that when we ask you to explain, we do so hoping to engage, as God directed us, and not to accuse (Matthew 18:15-17). Please grant us the courtesy of an explanation (Hebrews 12:14-15). Please know that the grief and loss community offers more love and kindness than you can imagine because life has taught us the awful lesson of 1 Corinthians 13:8 – that “love never ends,” not even with death. Please do not dismiss us because we disagree, but rather open your heart and take a moment to consider things from our perspective (Philippians 2:4).

To read an open letter to Pastor Osteen from MISS Foundation founder (and my wonderful friend and mentor) Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, click here.

To view the page from his book referenced in this blog, click here.

If you are a bereaved parent, or a person seeking greater understanding of traumatic loss, please visit the MISS Foundation website here.

If you are a social worker, mental healthcare provider, psychologist, nurse, counselor, or other licensed professional who wishes to learn how to help those suffering from the traumatic death of a loved one, please click here to learn about the Compassionate Bereavement Care Certification offered by the Center for Loss and Trauma in partnership with the MISS Foundation and the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust.