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What “Dateline” teaches me about love and loss

Julie Raffety confesses her appreciation for "Dateline" and what it teaches her about how to comfort those who mourn.

I always wonder if it is a good idea to admit this, but I watch a lot of “Dateline.” The charitable self-evaluation here is that I enjoy the fascinating study of human behavior and emotion. If you’ve ever watched a sensationalized crime documentary, you know that confessionals or interviews with family members or friends of the deceased are a large part of the broadcast. And, inevitably, the family or friends of the deceased reach the point in the interview where they are so overcome with grief that they turn to the interviewer, apologize and cry. And I wish, just once, that Keith Morrison or Dennis Murphy or Josh Mankiewicz or Andrea Canning (remember I said I watch a lot of “Dateline”?) would turn to this family member overcome with sorrow and kindly say, “Don’t apologize for crying.”

Author Jamie Anderson reminds us that, “Grief … is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” It feels extremely sadistic to say that we the viewers watch these shows hoping to see pain and tears, but there may be some truth to this statement. I do think sorrow is a realistic expectation when we watch a documentary about a tragedy. And yet, those telling the story feel the need to apologize for their sadness when it comes in the form of tears.

It was the late Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers who said, “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’” When it comes to interviewing people who have experienced the murder of a loved one, perhaps we should be more worried about them if they don’t express emotion. As any serial “Dateline” viewer will tell you, the police even look for this when they are interviewing persons of interest or suspects. Who is quite literally pretending to cry without the actual tears? So often, this lack of genuine emotion and guilt go together.

For those of us who look to Jesus, both fully God and fully human, to further understand how to navigate sorrow and pain and even emotion, we are reminded that “Jesus wept.” In the earlier years of my ministry, I was accused of preaching without emotion or being too guarded. And I think it was more than just one thing that was causing my preaching to be so unexpressive. First, I am a fairly even person when it comes to emotions. Second, I was so new at preaching and so nervous being in front of hundreds of people that I was struggling to deliver any piece of the sermon and be myself at the same time. And three, I was guarded, and I still struggle not to be. It is an incredibly personal and terrifying expectation to be vulnerable and share anything about your personal life with strangers.

The more I watch these interviews, the more I appreciate the courage and vulnerability of the family members and friends who share their loss with such a large audience. And the more I wish someone would remind them that they should never apologize for being bold in their love. Sometimes the interviewer will ask why they share their stories. Many people respond that they want to remember their loved one, that they want to tell the world how wonderful their loved one was, that they want justice. Whether the friends and family members on “Dateline” realize it, they are reminding us what it means to be fully human while catching a glimpse of the Divine. The Bible tells us that our God “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love …” (Psalm 103:8). Love the overflows out of us through tears seems like possibly the most Divine expression of love possible; no one should ever apologize for that kind of love.