So, what difference does it make in terms of ‘coming alongside’ the grieving that we consider ‘what gets lost’ after their loved one dies? For me, the key idea is that grief is not a slab of stone with no component parts but an organic whole consisting of living parts, each with a lifespan of its own. Grief is not simply one thing that one has to ‘get over.’ It is not a stomach bug. Grief is an organic experience with a life span all its own.
By using the word lifespan, I am trying to avoid using two other words: (1) progress and (2) journey. For me, those words, though readily at hand, are overused.
The idea of progress presupposes that one moves from a worse place to a better place. That the experience of grief is something on the order of a defect and that one is somehow supposed to move toward being less defective.
However, who is to say that the experience of grief- say shortly after the death of a loved one- is somehow worse? Worse in what way? Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one. It is what it is. It is neither better nor worse. To say that one can progress through grief is to pronounce judgment upon grief itself.
I know a woman who lost her son in a horrible car accident. For all anyone can tell she has not grieved her son at all. (Of course, who knows what she goes through in her quiet, alone times?) She has grieved other losses, so it’s not as if the lacks a grief neuron or something. She has shown no evidence that she is sad that her son is gone. (I don’t know what lies behind that.)
Now, which is ‘worse,’ if we want to go there: a mother who grieves the death of her son or a mother who does not grieve the death of her son? I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that something does not feel right about the latter. I want to say to not grieve is worse than grieving.
For me, it is better to accept grief as an appropriate response to the death of a loved one than to think of it as ‘worse’ than some future state called ‘better.’ If nothing else, thinking in that way enables the one grieving to accept the pain of loss as a natural response than simply as something to be gotten rid of or escaped right away. *
Maybe we would be better off if we honored our grief as evidence of our love rather than as an interruption to our neatly ordered, well-planned (fantasy) lives.
As difficult as it is, I think it is better when describing the grief of another to avoid referring to it as a journey- especially for a Christian. The idea of a journey is closely linked, at least in my mind, with the storyline called the Hero’s Journey.
A person (the hero) lives his life when something happens that alters his course, something that creates a problem to be solved, or a conflict to be resolved.
Along the way, the hero faces many obstacles and must find a way to overcome each. Often the hero experiences some kind of death, it’s all over for him, but then by some strange twist, he emerges at his destination a better person for it.
That’s a powerful tool in story-telling and likely sounds familiar to you.
I’ve heard many people refer to grief in precisely those terms.
But here’s the problem: the process of grief, for the believer, is more like being carried along than it is like a heroic journey. While there may be an element of the heroic in enduring, we believe that God is our comfort and that we are carried along by God’s enduring comfort and grace.
Maybe I’m a bit harsh about the ideas of progress and journey as they pertain to grief, but I do think that the idea is helpful that grief is more like an organism, with component parts that have lifespans, and a lifespan itself.
Grief is experienced by living creatures and just as living creatures have a lifespan so grief as a part of life has a lifespan too. In other words, grief is not an interruption to life, it is not a matter of progress from worse to better, and it is not a journey undertaken by a hero, who fights her own battles and endures her suffering with valor and might.
Grief is life and life is grief.
The patterns we lose when a loved one dies eventually seek other patterns- though not without sadness. The all-but-mythic projections we cast upon our all-too-human beloveds are withdrawn or cast onto others. As the finality of death sets in, the prospects of a future together in this temporal realm are exchanged for a hope that just across that gossamer veil we shall meet again.
All that is left is the memory of the beloved and the growing suspicion that the beloved is closer to us in death than they were in life.
As to those of us who are called alongside the grieving, our duty is not to guide or to cajole or to cheerlead the downcast. Our calling is to nurture their grief, to protect it so that grief may live out its life on its own terms. It is to be present, to encourage, and to remind. It is not to dampen its pain.
To nurture the grief of the grieving is to come alongside realizing that the shortest distance across the valley of the shadow of death is a straight line. It is to signify by our presence the presence of the One who is the Father of all compassion and comfort, the ultimate Thou-Art-With-Me, Emmanuel, whose mercy overshadows even the shadows of death.
* Several writers on suffering have pointed out that suffering, here in Western culture, is considered an interruption to how life ought to be. In a culture dedicated to the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ any suffering is seen as an intrusion that must be annihilated as soon as possible. That may help explain the absurdity of physicians prescribing anti-depressants for grief. Rather than endure this natural response to loss, the physician describes a technology that will speed ‘recovery’ along.