I like to gather wisdom from many places — novels, poems, Scripture, prayers, and, of course, Gunsmoke. Or more specifically, Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke [for the uninitiated, Gunsmoke is a “Western” and the longest running prime time television show of all time — 20 years from 1955-75). I was watching an episode with my Western-loving wife the other night when Miss Kitty was consoling a young woman whose husband had just been shot and killed. The woman remarked that she was not a good wife because she was not even crying and Miss Kitty replies that “tears are no measure of grief.”
I won’t deny that I usually start paying very close attention to any scene (visual or written) in which death plays a role. I’m curious how people will handle this and, not surprisingly, I’m often disappointed in the canned responses. Miss Kitty’s response caught me off guard because most responses encourage tears — let it out, you need a good cry, you’ll feel better.
What Miss Kitty is recognizing is that grief is different for everyone. While some cry, others will not. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who influenced much of how we approach death, says that grief is as individual as a life. Our lives are unique and so are grief is unique.
Many people are judged harshly for not crying at a funeral, especially for a loved one. “How can they be so cold? Don’t they care?” When, in fact, those people not crying may not even be aware they are being judged because their grief is so deep they are not paying attention to others. Personally, I’ve cried plenty over the loss of Oliver with no shame. But I cry far less than my wife and perhaps even others. Do I miss or grieve him less? Of course not, but my grief is expressed differently. I can withdraw from others even more than my already somewhat non-verbal self.
In the book of Job we find a man who knows a great deal of suffering. His friends, who later try to talk him out of his grief, at first respond in the best possible way. They sit with him in silence for seven days and nights because “they saw that his grief was very great” (2:13). Job breaks the silence after a week with a powerful monologue that opens with “May the day of my birth perish” (3:3). We can argue about whether they literally sat there seven days, but the message is clear: Job is in grief, deep grief, and all is silent. When he opens his mouth after seven days out comes a song of woe that shows his grief may have been silent, but it was also active.
Recognize that when you grieve you may cry, you may sit silently, and you may spill out a tale of woe. Also recognize that others will do the same and don’t judge their level of grief because they grieve differently than you expect. There are no measures of grief. There is simply grief and we need simply to be there for the grieving. Even silently and without tears.