3 ways to handle grief (inspired by a random, wonderful stranger)

The coolest, most random and affirming thing happened this week. I grieved with a total stranger, and I felt joy in doing it. I’ll tell you in a minute how it happened.

Let me just preface the story by saying that this is why I write about grief and why I encourage other people to write about their grief.

Sharing your grief cures your grief. (Not completely, but it helps you learn how to live again.)

People who have experienced pain understand your pain, and they want to alleviate it. Helping you helps them, and vice versa. Grieving together brings out the best of the human spirit. It creates friendships where they didn’t exist, connects victims, and inspires advocacy. Grief and pain must be utilized as connectors, not as disconnectors.

But grieving alone brings out the worst in people. It’s why young people, who have their whole lives before them, commit suicide anyway. It’s why trauma survivors constantly relive their suffering until they medicate themselves into addiction. It’s why parents, children, husbands, and wives grow bitter when death robs them of the most important people in their lives. Grieving alone brings out the worst in everybody. It’s hopeless.

None of us should grieve alone. We were created for community, in the best times and in the worst times.

So here’s what happened to me. I was given another piece of my dad’s story this week by someone who met him the day he died. The original story of his death and my investigation, as I understood it then, is here. But all stories are more complex than that. There are so many facets, especially to something that happened 50 years ago and forever altered several families.

A nice retired FAA ground traffic controller stumbled across the video of me hiking my dad’s crash site on You Tube (watch here). He looked up my website and subscribed to my blog. He watched an interview (or a sermon?) I had given and called our church looking for me. My church called me with his phone number.

“Is this someone you want to talk to? Is this legitimate?”


I called him back.

He was on ground control the night my dad’s plane crashed. On February 11, 1969, this 23-year-old controller greeted 7 naval aviators when they landed at El Toro Air Force base for their two-week drill in Southern California. In flight gear, they headed straight for their Lockheed Neptune SP-2E and climbed in, eager to scout the area. He cleared them to taxi to Runway 7 and take off, heading west toward the Saddleback Mountains, with the limitless ocean beyond.

He gave them the standard warning: “Be advised of treacherous terrain.” The Neptune raced toward the sky and disappeared into the clouds.

The young controller heard nothing more about them until the FAA air traffic controller called to ask if anyone had spoken to them. The Neptune was in his traffic but he couldn’t reach them to talk about landing. He wanted them to hold below cloud cover until cleared to land. They weren’t responding.

My new friend told me that he remembers fear gripping his heart. He immediately called the helicopter search-and-rescue and sent them out into the evening. The next news he heard was that the Neptune had crashed in Modjeska Canyon, trying to turn and clear the peaks.

He wanted me to know they were great guys, excited to fly. He wanted me to know that he had been haunted by their loss and wished he could communicate with us. He wanted me to know that he never knew our names.

“I can tell that you are doing well,” he said, after we had chatted for a while. “You are a person of faith.”

“Yes,” I said. “God is good. He is enough.”

“Romans 8:28,” he said. “All things work together for good.”

Because I knew his heart, the verse rang true. It wasn’t trite and unfeeling in this context. “Yes. Even the painful things.”

We hung up as friends joined by loss, faith, and hope. Both of us received a little more healing that day because we had shared our pain. That’s how healing works. It happens in relationship.

So if you’re hurting or if you have a silent grief, you should:

  1. Share it with someone safe, someone you can keep coming back to and sharing a bit more. Grief is processed in layers, like an onion. (Do’s and Don’ts for grievers here.)
  2. Write about it, read about it, process it out loud. Don’t ignore it. It won’t disappear.
  3. Celebrate the joy connected with your grief. Something good comes of every sorrow when it’s given over to God. (Find an idea about processing and being joyful here.)

I’m not talking about silver linings or making lemonade out of lemons. Safe people don’t say things like that. They acknowledge that pain is painful, and there’s nothing trite or unspiritual about feeling grief and anxiety. A motivational meme doesn’t cure grief.

But action and faith in the context of community will. Don’t be afraid to test my assertion. You have nothing to lose but pain. Holding it in only makes it grow stronger. (Read how to cope here.)

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

2 Corinthians 13:11

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