I offered the following reflection on St. Mark’s All Souls Day services on November 2, 2019. I wrote most of it several years ago and have used pieces of it here and there, but I have not published the entire reflection until now.
During the next few minutes, I would like to share with you four images. I invite you to imagine these images as I describe them. Each one illustrates a facet of the impact of grief on our lives, something that grief does for us, something that grief is. Perhaps you will resonate with one or more of these images. Perhaps, the four that I describe will spur you to discern your own image for grief. I hope you will, because grief is an intensely personal thing, which makes it one of the hardest things to share. By trying to describe grief, we can give ourselves some language with which to talk about it, and thus find, in some small, yet meaningful ways, the ability to share it with others.
My list is by no means exhaustive, and again it is personal to me, so some of my images might sound strange to you. But in sharing mine, I hope to help you find your own. So find a comfortable position in your pew. Close your eyes if that helps you focus. Take a few deep breaths.
We begin with the first image: grief as anchor. Grief happens after loss – whether the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship or a change in what you thought the future would hold. Sometimes the loss is expected. Sometimes it is unexpected. Either way, loss is always sudden. In the blink of an eye, the world is changed. The sky is still blue, the moon still waxes and wanes. The rest of the world goes about its business. And yet the world will never be the same. You look around wondering why so few people notice the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. They’re all still breathing, so why can’t you?
And a stray thought enters your mind: is any of this real? Am I dreaming? The world looks the same, but – horribly – it’s not. You feel the tide start to pull you out to sea, to where you can’t tell the difference between what’s solid and what’s vapor. But right when you think the current is about to sweep you away forever, something catches you by the ankle. A fetter. A rope. An anchor dug into the seabed. Your grief is the anchor, which keeps you tied to the real, which keeps you close to sane.
And this brings us to our second image: grief as chest protector. We could say pillow or cushion, but they don’t have the same usage. A chest protector is a piece of baseball equipment. The catcher, who squats behind the plate and fields the throws from the pitcher, wears the chest protector. It’s a flexible piece of ribbed foam material, and it has exactly one use, as its name implies. Usually the catcher catches the pitch, but every once in a while the batter gets just a piece of the ball – Not enough to send it back into the field, but enough to redirect it away from the catcher’s mitt. When this happens, the hard ball, which is going somewhere between 80 and 100 miles per hour, strikes the catcher, often in the chest.
And boy does it hurt. There will be a bruise most likely. The catcher will need to “walk it off” as they say. But there won’t be any broken ribs, which there certainly would be without the protection. The chest protector spreads the ball’s impact across the entirety of the equipment. Grief is a chest protector. “Loss” is screaming down at you at 100 miles per hour, and you take it right in the chest. It should tear a hole clean through you, but miraculously you’re still breathing. It hurts more than you thought it could, but it would have hurt even more if grief hadn’t cushioned the blow. As the chest protector, grief helps you spread the pain out, so you don’t take it all in the same spot, all at once (which would likely be enough to kill you).
The chest protector keeps you from dying from the initial impact of loss. The anchor keeps you from being pulled into the ocean of the unreal. But once these initial phases of grief run their course, you notice the grief staying with you. And this brings us to our third image: grief as a growing child. At first you’re up several times a night with newborn grief. It rules all your waking and sleeping moments. It’s on your hip as you do the laundry and make supper. You can’t take your eyes off it.
Then as the years pass, the grief changes. It’s still always with you, always a part of you, but now you can sleep through the night. Now you can be by yourself for a few hours while grief is at school, and it feels okay. The years continue to roll by. The child grows up, leaves the house. But she’ll be home for the holidays. This is grief. Loss changes your life forever. But this change does not halt all change. Your life continues to change and grow as you live longer and longer with your grief.
And this brings us to our final image: grief as tether. No matter how much it hurts, grief is a gift from God. In the case of a loved one who has passed away, grief demonstrates in a visceral way how much you love the person who has died. Early on a September morning a few years ago, my father called to tell me my grandfather had died. I was sad at first, but I didn’t expect to grieve. We were never close, after all. Then later on the day he died, I was sitting in my office with Margot, my former rector, and I was hit by such a wave of grief that I could barely breathe through my weeping.
I was grieving the loss of the possibility of a deeper relationship – that it was too late to begin, that I had never known him as well as I should have. And yet the grief was also telling me that I was, in fact, connected to him, that we were tethered in a deep and meaningful way that I didn’t expect. As a tether, grief keeps us connected to those who have died. We hold one end and they hold the other, and they are capable of holding the other because of the power of the resurrection. Thus grief is a profound reminder that our loved ones are still alive, wonderfully, miraculously alive, enfolded in the full light and love of God. We grieve because we can’t perceive the other end of the rope, but we cling on anyway because we know that someday our end of the tether will be gathered in.
These are four of my images of grief. The anchor keeps us close to sane. The chest protector cushions – just a bit – the initial impact. The growing child remains with us always, in one way or another. And the tether keeps us connected, one to another, and each to God. Thank God for grief. Without it, our pain would have no reason, and our love would have an end. But as that wise philosopher, Charlie Brown says, “Good grief.”