Good Grief

Grief sucks. There’s no nice way to put it. Grief is the partner of a great loss: it follows death like a travelling companion. The two arrive at your doorstep one day, death walks away with the one you love, and grief moves in for a season. But grief is more than death’s companion: it is also the precursor to life.

That last statement may strike as odd, even a bit offensive. Perhaps I can conjure a useful metaphor to help clarify this point. When death touches your soul, it is as though a massive volcano has erupted in your landscape, sending ash and lava everywhere, blowing things to bits and basically wreaking destruction as far as the eye can see. This is a cataclysmic event that shatters one’s entire world, utterly altering the once familiar landscape forever.

Grief is like the cooled lava on the plain. Like a scab on a wound, the cooled lava begins to settle and harden, eventually becoming the contours of the new landscape. As time goes by, its crust yields and begins to accept new seed, from which springs forth new life. Riotous splotches of colour pop up on an otherwise black and hardened scene. Given more time the lava yields even further and transforms into the rich soil feeding all sorts of new plant life. Trees grow, birds return, animals roam in the underbrush. A new landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the old one, but forever changed. But it is still life. A new life, brought about by the cataclysm.

Death is common to all, meaning, we will all experience it at one point or another. Therefore, we will all at some moment in time encounter the bitter pang of grief. Put it off as one may, grief always catches up with us. This is so because grief’s ultimate goal is not to destroy, but to heal.

Without grief, there is no cost. What I mean by that is if you read an obituary in the paper tomorrow of someone whom you never knew, you will feel no pang of grief. This is because you likely did not know the person. Therefore, you never invested anything into that person: it cost you nothing. The people in whom we invest the most cost us the most when they depart. The bereaved speak of losing a part of themselves when a loved one dies. Indeed.

The task of grief is not, however, to replace that loss, but to heal. I say that it can be a healing agent. Often times it is not. Some people become so lost in grief that it leads them to untold depths of depression. This has obvious psychological effects, but it can also lead to physical ones. Some research points towards prolonged grief leading people to suffer from cancer. A cancer of the soul that leads to cancer of the body. A dreadful thing.

But aren’t there other things which, when abused, can rob us of life? Wine gladdens the heart and can benefit the body, but when abused can lead to alcoholism, even death. Sugar makes all kinds of things palatable, but again, when abused can lead to all sorts of physical problems.

Grief can also be abused. One can wallow in it for too long.

Grief is not the soul’s natural condition. It is an extreme emotion, if you will. It comes when great disasters occur: the loss of a loved one, when one’s home is burned down, when you bid your youngest child goodbye as he or she heads off to university and you face an empty house for the first time in many years. These are extraordinary events. Grief is present in those occasions to shepherd the grieving person into a new phase of life.

The death of a spouse is an extraordinary event in any one person’s life. Yet, sooner or later, it will happen to us all if we were fortunate enough to be married to someone who counted.

Grief is good in that it brings up everything you had with that special someone, good or bad. You relive the good and bad times in the theatre of your mind. You look at the photos and cry rivers of tears, because the memories formed were sweet and brought you life.

Grief is good in that it forces you to take stock of your life. Many people say a death will do this to you, but death is all around us at every moment of the day. People die left and right, and they do not affect us until it’s the death of someone who mattered. This is the province of grief: those who count, those we love. Grief is the one that forces you to take stock. You check to see what is of worth, which of your priorities are really, truly worthwhile. “What is life all about, anyway?” is a question asked ad nauseum until the season of grief passes. Is this not a worthwhile question for us to ask ourselves every day, no matter where we might be in life?

Grief is good in that it shows you that you did love someone very, very much. This is bittersweet, indeed. To have lost so much and only then to realize how much was in fact lost is hard to stomach. You would think that you would think about it every day. But none of us do. I didn’t. I took it for granted that Janie would always be there. Now she’s not. I loved her so, so much. As much as it hurts, it makes me feel alive and significant that I loved someone else so much that it hurts like hell now.

I said earlier that grief heals. That might have been the wrong thing to say. Grief is the EMT at the accident scene that gets you to the hospital. In my world view, the healer is God. Grief forces me to confront God. Why did she have to die? Why am I, the lesser parent, given the task of raising our two children? Why did this have to happen now when everything was just starting to come together, when we were just really hitting our stride and getting along better than we ever had before? Honesty about these questions opens me up to God’s healing. It also produces perseverance, character and hope. (Romans 5:3-5)

A real faith wrestles with just these sorts of questions. A real faith hits the mat with God and goes back and forth until, at last, either the soul finds its answers or rests in the knowledge that the One who has them is good and will not abandon you to a wilderness of sorrow. This is the point of these verses:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

Later on in the same Psalm, it says the following:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:5)

Quite an image. God has set a table, and I am seated there with my enemies. Who are my enemies? In this instance, my enemy is death itself. Yet, while seated at the table, my head is anointed with oil. This is, to me, an image of God’s own Spirit flowing over me. The image in the Old Testament harkens to when someone was called into a sacred office, like that of a king or a prophet. Kings and prophets are anointed to lead their people, their nation. At the table of my enemy death, I am called into being in that place. I am anointed with God’s Spirit in that place. In that place, my cup overflows. Abundant supply. Of what?

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:6)

An abundant supply of goodness, love, and the joy of being in God’s presence, God’s house, now and beyond the now on the other side. An abundant supply of goodness and love here, and a dwelling place with the God of the universe. This is what we Christians like to call a promise of God.

So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why is grieving so hard? Why must I wake up every morning to this dreadful sense of loss and emptiness only to carry out my daily tasks in rote fashion and finally collapse in bed at night contemplating the meaninglessness of my existence, praying for death to come swiftly that I might be reunited with Janie, whom I loved so much?

For one, because she mattered. If she didn’t, I’d be fine.

For another, recovery takes time, and there are stages. Already I function better than I did on 21 June, the day the doctors said Janie was brain dead. I still feel dreadfully sad much of the time and helpless. A year from now, I won’t be in as bad a place.

Healing takes time… but not only time.

This is where grief is most useful: it can spur you to action. You can get to the point where you ask a very meaningful question: “isn’t there something I can do about this?”

And yes, you can. For one, you can stop lugging around all that weight on your own. Open up to someone close, then open up to a group. I go to grief group every Monday night. I was just there tonight. It’s absolutely the most positive experience for me right now.

For another, you can allow the One who can heal all that hurt to get into you and do what he does: restore. The whole of the gospel of Jesus is about restoration: restoring humanity to a loving relationship with the divine. God won’t leave you. God hasn’t left you. Immortality has its perks.

But the single most awe inspiring, most wonderful, most joy inducing thing about grief is that it is not permanent. If you can be a gracious host to your grief when it is with you for a season, then like a good guest it will leave when its work is done. This is something I cling to. There is something good at the other end of this thing. I still struggle to accept Janie’s death. I will for a long time. But there is a life for me at the other side. Right now, I don’t want it. But when I get there, when I arrive at the other end of this valley, I will.

Several friends of mine have lost someone dear to them: a parent, a dear friend, a child. They are still among us today. They laugh, they joke, they work, they live. Some have walked through their season of grief. Others haven’t.

I am on my road through this valley. I want, more than anything else, to know that those who read this blog and have been or are in a similar situation to mine understand that this is temporary. Life changing? Oh yes. Soul wrenching? You bet. But temporary. And no, time alone will not heal the wound. You have to go into the valley if you want to get to the other side.

So as they say in England, get stuck in. Go after it. Be purposeful. This blog is part of my attempt to do just that. If you’re in this wilderness with me, find your avenue, your outlet, your conduit to go through what is now raging inside of you and, eventually, find your way out of the valley too. That is my prayer. Now pray it with me:

God, your name is holy. Teach us to treat it as such in our daily lives.

May your kingdom come here, and your will be done here as well, just like it is in heaven, where you are.

Give us today what we need.

Forgive what we have done wrong to you and others to the degree that we forgive, because we know that we cannot ask for it unless we freely give it out.

Deliver us from the darkness and the forces therein.

You are King of the kingdom. You are its power, its glory, now and always.

Amen.

August 23, 2011