[Editor’s Note: This article is part one of a two-part series about grieving. In part one, we hear from a father, an aunt and a pastor.]
On Aug. 30, 1997, little Kaj Krogstad was born in Nashville, Tenn., to Donald “Chopper” Krogstad and his wife, Marit. Kaj (the j in his name is pronounced i) was born 13 weeks early, via cesarean section due to pregnancy complications. He weighed 1-pound, 1-ounce and was 11-and-a-half inches long.
“Our world changed immediately thereafter,” Krogstad, an associate professor of chemistry, said.
Over the next six months, Kaj grew to be 5-pounds, 5-ounces. He’d been on a ventilator for most of his life, but eventually his tiny lungs couldn’t keep up.
On March 5, 1998, Kaj died; his mother and father were with him.
Family and friends rushed to help the grieving parents, but occasionally, the well-meant words they spoke added to the couple’s pain.
“The grieving process… is really tough,” Krogstad explained. “He died on March 5 and Easter was coming up. We went to Palm Sunday services and it was hell on earth. And I had people come up to me, ‘Well, you can appreciate Easter more than anybody else because you’ll know what it means to have eternal life,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but I don’t want to hear it right now.’”
These words, which Krogstad admitted did help him many years down the road, were painful at the time because they added guilt to the sorrow.
“Don’t tell me what I should be feeling,” he thought at the time. “Don’t tell me how I should be hurting, or feeling better.”
Knowing what to say to a person who is grieving might seem difficult. It’s tempting to fall back on platitudes: This is God’s will/This isn’t God’s will/He’s in a better place/You’ll have other children/At least he’s out of pain/You should be thankful you had him as long as you did. To someone who is grieving, these words usually hurt much more often than they help.
The only words that don’t are, “I’m so sorry.”
As Krogstad’s experience illustrates, sometimes words that were well-intended cause anger instead. And on the heels of anger, guilt—about feeling angry—soon follows.
Rev. Tim Megorden, campus pastor at Concordia, said that’s very normal. “Often they say, ‘You know, I shouldn’t really be feeling this, but here’s what I’m feeling,’ and [we need] to be able to say, ‘Oh, that sounds really reasonable given where you are.’”
Dawn Duncan, a professor in the English department, is not a stranger to grief. She remembers the shock she experienced during the funeral of a close friend’s nine-day-old baby when the pastor told everyone that the death of the baby was God’s will.
“I don’t remember what else he said, but I have a deep spiritual faith and everything rose up in me at that moment in anger and denial,” Duncan recalled, “because my instant reaction was, ‘How arrogant of you to say that you know what God’s will was in this.’”
She admitted that she is “more comforted by someone who tells me truthfully that they don’t understand.”
In moments like that, words are often pretty shallow, Megorden said.
“[It’s more important to] be with people,” he said. “You can assure them that God is with them. I think that’s the clear message of the Scriptures.”
In 1999 Duncan received word that her much-loved niece and namesake, Vanessa Dawn, who was her sister’s only child—a miracle baby after 11 years of infertility—had been killed in a car accident just 10 days after she turned 19. Duncan flew home to Texas to be with her family and remembered her reaction from the earlier funeral.
“When the preacher came to talk to us about the service,” Duncan said, “I told him, ‘If you say [that this is God’s will], all hell will break loose.’ And he was gracious and said, ‘No, you’re right, I would never say such a thing.’”
After returning home, Duncan, who is very involved in her church, was surprised that no one from the church reached out to her after her niece’s death. After six months, she went to her priest to ask him about it because she was angry. He told her that she seemed so together and so private that they didn’t want to invade her space. Her response was, “Well, sometimes, it’s those of us who seem so strong who really need someone to reach out.”
Megorden acknowledged that people who are grieving are taught by society to be sad in isolation or alone. But that it’s important for friends to spend time with them.
It’s also important not to pressure grieving people to move on, Krogstad adds. “A lot of people said, ‘Well, it’s been six months, it’s been nine months, it’s been 12 months. How come you’re not over this yet?’ And I’ve tried to explain to people that I’ve had a hole in me for 13 years and it’ll never be filled and I don’t want it to be filled. And that’s what a lot of people don’t get.”
In a book by Sarah Brabant, titled Mending the Torn Fabric: For Those Who Grieve and Those Who Want to Help Them, Brabant uses a simile for someone who is grieving by comparing them to a piece of fabric that’s been torn. When someone we love dies, the fabric which represents our lives rips. It might be a hole, or the whole garment might be shredded. The holes or rips can still be mended, but the fabric never looks like it did before it was torn.
Brabant wrote, “Sometimes a bereavement or loss is so enormous that life seems to come to a standstill. From that moment on, one’s life is divided into before the loss and after the loss. For a parent, a child’s death is this kind of bereavement. Never, never, never can that child be replaced.”
Sometimes the smallest gestures can make a difference.
“I think those people who could reach out, and put a hand on my shoulder in a tender, quiet, and gentle way meant more to me than any kind of effusive reaction,” Duncan said. “I actually felt pretty alone during that time…I needed to be able to talk about [her niece]…and I couldn’t work through things.”
Megorden and Duncan both spoke of the importance of remembering the person who has died.
“In addition to the tears,” Duncan said, “there’s a lot of laughter because you sit and tell [their] stories… and that’s crucial.” It doesn’t change the fact that they’re gone, and according to Duncan, “The dearest friends are those who can sit without being uncomfortable, letting me talk when I want to talk about it, but also just sitting with me quietly.”
For the person who is grieving, the right words can bring comfort, a sense of peace, and acceptance. The wrong words can bring even greater and deeper pain.
For the Krogstads, the wrong words were spoken in a public place where Chopper’s mother could overhear: “Well, why don’t they just let this child die? How cruel is it to keep this kid alive for their own benefit?”
The woman who spoke those words didn’t understand that the Krogstad’s believed they would be bringing Kaj home very soon.
“We had hope until the day he died,” Krogstad said. ”Every day was a gift.”
And he’s forever thankful.
“The anniversary of his death was [March 5],” he said. “It’s been 13 years, and it still hurts.”
[Editor’s note: Part Two of the Series, an interview with Cindy Larson-Casselton about the death of her husband, Rusty, will continue in the next issue of The Concordian.]