The Holy Work of Grief
Last week was one of celebrating and crying - at times simultaneously.
My to-do list for the week was prioritized to help my adult son who was moving fifteen hours away on Saturday to begin his first job and to welcome my daughter's fiance' for a weekend celebration and tend to a few wedding planning details for them. Both my son's new job and her forthcoming marriage are celebration-worthy and yet there is an accompanying sense of loss when a child is moving far away, no longer a student, but really on his or her own. It’s a good thing, but it’s still a thing.
The long holiday breaks of academic life are gone, as is the automatic assumption they will be home for all major holidays. I wish I weren’t such a realist at times like these. A minister told me once, when my husband was in combat the first few days of the Gulf War, that I was grieving in advance as a defense mechanism. I couldn’t help myself. When one of his friends was on the cover of Newsweek as a POW and another shot down and MIA, why would I think that couldn’t happen to us also?
I’d like to live in La-La Land sometimes, but I just can’t. I go on in that dark room and look under the bed.
My week was going to be sorting, packing, and shipping for him and a few emails, phone calls, and planning for her; until on the same morning within an hour, I heard that a friend lost a much desired child through miscarriage and another couple lost their beloved ten-year-old in an accident. Whatever my tasks were that seemed important, whatever swings between elation and loss I was feeling, that kind of grief takes center stage and reorders our lives.
The work of grief must be done. It is holy work. It takes time, energy and emotion. It takes vulnerability.
If I’m honest, as much as I love this couple, I wanted a reason not to go to a child’s funeral. I didn’t want to open up to that kind of grief. But trying to convince myself that packing my son up for a move was a reasonable excuse while they were burying their son was shameful to me. I went. If there’s ever been a time to lean into the resistance, it was then. I’m thankful I did. I celebrated and cried at the same time. I came away full, not depleted.
The light-filled sanctuary swelled with people as the hour drew near. The liturgy began. We sang. We prayed. We passed the peace. We remembered this boy and we remembered our Savior. We walked to the altar for holy communion. Kneeling there, reaching our hands up to receive the bread, our bodies both remember and testify of our humanity, our neediness, our posture in this world as beggars, bringing nothing but receiving everything, grieving and giving thanks simultaneously.
Nothing about watching or participating in such a ritual is easy. The depth of grief when we lose someone reflects the love, gratitude and wonder of the beauty we once beheld. When, I wondered as I knelt again in my pew, will all the prayers being offered up in that place, the utterances of our hearts for this family, become His peace in their hearts? When will our pleas for them become embodied provision?
God dwells outside time and space, but he is pleased to make 4:00 on a Thursday in an Anglican sanctuary sacred and eternal. The work of his people in that space at that hour is ongoing. He continues to hear “Make haste to help them” and “Have mercy on them” long after our lips have ceased to say it.
I came back home to four wardrobe boxes in my foyer and a family waiting on me for dinner. From the holy eucharist to the most humble kitchen supper. From a funeral service to ordinary dinner conversation with my own family. It’s tempting to tell myself there’s no monster under the bed, to refuse to acknowledge the changes and rites of passage in my own household. After all, look how much greater this family’s loss. But to deny the emotion of grief and fail to honor loss is to also to deny thanksgiving for what you’ve had. If nothing is too small for gratitude and wonder - and it isn’t - then neither is it too small to acknowledge its loss, for in honoring grief we are giving thanks.