We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope.
But still grieve. Denial has its place. Clinical literature suggests that people in loss will spend two years getting back to any semblance of normality in the most expected of griefs. The first few months, people often feel nothing at all, or only here and there. Our minds and bodies shut down to protect us from the savagery of loss.
But denial has to give way eventually to an ocean of pain. There are denials which, if continued endlessly, are dangerous. In this particular passage of scripture, he is writing to a little church in Greece. The Thessalonian Christians were struggling with the reality that many were dying. They had mistakenly thought that Jesus would come back in their lifetimes and they would never die. Jesus said things that made them think this. Now, as people died, they asked, “What do we make of this?” It threatened their sense of faith because it was built on a false notion—that Christians would be spared death and suffering. We must find a deeper sense of hope that can deal with death.
But we can make a second mistake. If we should not grieve as those who have no hope, neither should we hope as those who have no grief. Paul doesn’t say “Christians have the victory. They shouldn’t grieve. That’s for unbelievers.”
When it comes to grief, of course, we hear a lot of stuff. There are stages we have to go through. It’s unhealthy not to grieve. Denial is bad, at least after a while, but grieving is good.
People say dumb things, too. They also don’t say things they ought to—like calling the name of a loved one. We avoid it because “we don’t want to upset them.” What that means is, “If you start crying, I won’t know what to do. It bothers me. So we won’t talk about it.” Of course, we can pick at people, too.
Let’s face it, it’s a hard place to know what to do. We don’t want to talk with them expecting tears and run into the anger stage instead.
A senior adult woman I once knew, a delightful and modestly uptight person of the old school, lost her husband. One day she saw me in public and said, “Pastor, I don’t think I’m doing this grief thing right.” I asked her what she meant. “Well, I read these books, and people tell me I should feel this way and that, and I haven’t felt those things.” I told her, “Don’t worry about all of that. When it comes to grief, everyone has their own unique way through it. When it comes time to feel it, you will.” And she did. Grief is not bad—it is normal and inevitable.
When I tell people how to learn to pray, I suggest that they might start by reading the Psalms out loud. Let their words be yours. They are a prayer book and they can teach you how to pray.
Of special interest are the psalms of lament. Roughly one-third of the psalter consists of these. In them, the psalmist brings before God the deep-seated fears, doubts, and longings of themselves and the community.
These lamentations, “expressions of sorrow” talk about the griefs, anguish and pains of individuals, the community, death, loss, injustice, suffering, you name it. Whatever there is to cry about is here. If it is this large a part of the prayer book that Jesus used, it must say something to us about grief and sorrow. First that we should give it expression and a voice.
The notion that there is something noble about not crying or feeling our pain is one of the stupidest misunderstandings of courage ever. It is simply a way to get sick, physically or mentally.
That is not to say this must go on endlessly. But we must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them. Courage’s work begins at the end of honest acknowledgement.
The great Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, said that the psalms begin in obedience and end with pure praise. In order to understand how to move from one to the other, he said, we must pass through the psalms of lament.
If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us. We should grieve as people of hope—so what does that mean? I’ll post that in the next piece, but let me at least suggest that art and music can be powerful helpers in the journey. This is why blues are important, but also singing our faith. Expressing sorrow usually brings momentary relief—talking to a friend, speaking the name of the person we love, building up a “memorial,” something as simple as my grandfather’s hymnal I have at home, or my late father-in-law’s chair in my home office where I sit and remember him, or a simple tool that belonged to my Dad’s father. They are like the “stone of Ebenezer” in the Bible, a place that marked the presence of God.
If God is also in our sorrow, memorial is good work if it is part of letting go instead of denial. It says, “This reminds me of my loss.” My sorrow has often found itself into songs, hymns, even instrumental pieces. There is a very fine CD by John L. Bell and the Cathedral Singers called, Last Journey: Time of Grieving. It contains a wide variety of choral reflections on loss and hope in the experience of death. I listened to it for a very long time during a period of revisiting some of my own griefs.
Another that really spoke to me was Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac, which is really a grief journey through the loss of her dad, Johnny Cash. It is beautiful, my favorite CD of hers.
And sometimes, late at night, I sit with the guitar and let whatever wants to come out. I know that sounds weird, but this happened only after I wasn’t struggling to learn how to play anymore. It was possible to “turn loose” and let subconscious and fingers pick the music.
Here is a piece I recorded late one night. Don’t really know why this came out as it did, but I felt the sorrow of that moment and began to play “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” Recorded two guitar tracks and later added bass, but essentially, it is mourning with notes. It’s no masterpiece, but grieving is, in its own way, a thing of beauty that should not be overlooked or condescended to as a failure of some kind. The failure to grieve eventuates in the failure to do nearly everything else that matters—live, die well, love, empathize and find the truth.