Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners


Surprised by Grief

Not too long ago 29,000 Somali children were reported to have died from starvation, the crackdown in Syria and bombings in Libya continued, and the unemployment epidemic in our own country persisted in the face of debilitating squabbles in Washington. And, in a car driving north on I-75, half-listening to the headlines on NPR, I was blinking back tears over the loss of a loved one.

Grief catches us unawares- a bit like a blow to the stomach that leaves a gnawing, gaping hole in our gut.  When the pain of loss, whatever it may be, may seem small and even trivial against a vast backdrop of human suffering, it still can overwhelm us, sometimes in the form of an unexpected, bewildering deluge of feelings, other times as a palpably present  “thorn in the flesh.”  It can leave us thinking that somehow “this- whatever ‘this’ is- wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.”  So much so that we find ourselves clinging to the very attachment that has to go, like a child with her security blanket, even when in some cases we know the thing we have to release is not good for us or prevents us from growing up.

As a minister I have sat at the bedside of many a dying person and their family and witnessed the sacred process of letting go of a loved one.  At times I have been asked to facilitate that process, always as a kind professional with a job to do.  A distanced, sympathetic observer with the right words.  Words of relief and consolation.  Reassurances of God’s love and promises of new life.

But a grief partaken, a grief lived and living, is a whole different experience.  All of our best defenses suddenly fail: there are no words, or they are hard to come by and fall flat; and there is no manual, despite what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her tidy five “stages” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) might claim.  My own grief has been messy, explosive, and unruly, so that at times the inclination is to stuff it, pretending it is not there, or to find some form of escape.  Maybe this is because the act of grieving requires coming to terms with the reality of my own death, for which each of life’s successive losses is mere preparation.

Whatever the case, grief follows no cookie-cutter pattern, as Thomas Long observes in his critique of Kübler-Ross (the June 28, 2011 issue of The Christian Century).  “The idea that people sail across the stygian stream towards some tranquil stage of acceptance is not an empirical observation.  It is bad theology, a product of Kübler-Ross’ smuggled Neoplatonism, which stands in tension with Christian eschatology and the biblical concept of death as the final enemy.”

Grief can strike whenever we lose someone or something that has come to define who we are or how we see ourselves, so that in their absence, “the plot threads unravel, the narrative shatters, and those of us who are part of the story ‘go to pieces.’”  The hard work of grief is, as Long writes, “to gather the fragments and to rewrite the narrative, this time minus a treasured presence.”  Yet how do we rewrite a story when our grief has left us without words?  How do we fashion redemptive meaning from tragedy?

Perhaps the start of an answer is that we cannot alone.  We need the help of Someone who meets us where we are, in the wilderness of our suffering, and offers just enough sustenance to get us through when we cannot see the path ahead through our tears.  And, in that space where words no longer suffice, and our prayers are more like silent cries, the Spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).  Here, maybe, is where the reshaping begins.  Here is where we begin to gather the fragments and rewrite a narrative that is without “closure” (something that the bereaved often seek but rarely find). Thankfully, for Christians, when all such elusive and illusory attempts to domesticate our grief fail, there is still the God-breathed prayer that, as Long so wonderfully puts it, “all of our lost loves will be gathered into that great unending story fashioned by God’s grace.”



Previous Posts

Jesus and the Rich Man: A Sermon on the "Hitler" of Passages.
It's rare that I find myself thinking about Sunday's sermon midweek. This Sunday our pastor Drew Ditzel preached on the familiar story of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10). The rich man, who says he has kept all the commandments perfectly and has lived a righteous life, comes to Jesus asking what mor

posted 10:40:08am Sep. 17, 2014 | read full post »

The Lie of Invulnerability
This last week has been insane. Family sickness, repairs, car issues, multiple calls from school nurses, including one in which the nurse expressed concern my 7-year-old son had been bitten by a brown recluse spider...and just when I thought it couldn't get worse...viral pinkeye. Two puffy, leaky, r

posted 11:00:49am Sep. 09, 2014 | read full post »

Humor Relief for Religious Extremism
Once again, humor and satire are coming to my aid this morning, this time in response to the twisted and evil extensions of religion that seeks to coerce and control with violence and worldly forms of power (best embodied these days in the form of ISIS and its affiliates). The Palestinian televis

posted 10:36:57am Sep. 03, 2014 | read full post »

"AA" Recovery Groups—Spirituality for the Non-Religious, Hope for the Church?
[caption id="attachment_5326" align="alignleft" width="271"] Bill Wilson co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935. Their affectionately called "Big Book" is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies since its publication. (Photo credit: Haze

posted 11:27:26am Sep. 02, 2014 | read full post »

Thoughtful Christians—They're Around, Via Fare Forward
The cover story from the latest (July/August) issue of Christianity Today offers a refreshing antidote to all the gloom and doom that often accom

posted 2:39:15am Aug. 27, 2014 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.