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.”