"Embrace Grief and Loss: Accepting your Limits" was the title of our chapter in the Peter Scazzero Emotionally Healthy Spirituality material that we are working through at church this term. Pastor John began with a story about his giving up playing Senior Rugby some years back, after an injury, and not being able to go watch an All Blacks game for about three years, because of a pain in his soul that, on reflection, he knows was grief. We looked at a number of examples of change and loss that bring about grief experiences: change in or loss of a job, change in or loss of health, change in family structure through divorce and of course what we usually think of, loss of a family member through death. Pastor John also spoke of that, as he recalled the helpful and unhelpful things people said and did after his son Tony drowned in the Mangetepopo tragedy four years ago.
Counsellor David Riddell notes that many people experience grief without realising it, eg in a deep disappointment, the shattering of a dream, or the frustration of blocking of a life purpose. We need, he says, to trace the source of the pain and face up to the choices it offers, because grief and loss deepen our spiritual maturity, or "enlarge our soul' as Pete Scazzero puts it. Job, for example, faced cataclysmic loss, but was able to come to terms with his own limitations and inadequate theology. Both tears and talking are necessary, more and for longer than we ever thought necessary. I have written before about using the the Biblical practice of lament to process unresolved feelings, but grief is also an opportunity to explore how we feel about our own limitations. An emotionally healthy approach to grief and loss may mean the conventional cry "Why me?" can be reframed as "Why not me?" Change, and the grief that often accompanies it, is the experience of every human being, but by journeying through it, we can emerge a more resilient person, enlarged in soul by the compassion that grief brings.
My faith journey has been marked by a number or recent experiences of loss that I processed better when I identified them as grief. One was the loss of my jewellery in a burglary, a financial loss to be sure, but much more profound than that, a loss that went to the core of my identity, because of pieces that can never be replaced by an insurance payout. Another that same year was the loss of my laptop hard drive, which crashed while I was on holiday in Australia, taking with it a year or so of unbackedup photos and documents. I had to "embrace my limits", and reassure myself that I still have the brain that wrote all those sermons, and the living grandchildren whose pictures I lost. Actually losing all those emails was remarkably freeing! The two "small" grief experiences though prepared me for further griefs that have assaulted me since - the most obvious one being the death of my beloved father at age 92 last October.
I read an article this week about author Helen Brown who wrote a very popular NZ book called Cleo - about a feisty kitten who helped heal the grieving family after the death, from a car accident, of nine yearold Sam. I am reading the book this week. Someone gave Helen some books on how to raise kittens, and casually included Elizabeth Kubler Ross' well known treatise on the Stages of Grief, as well. I love the way Helen describes reading it, and her reaction to its formulaic approach to the emotions that accompany grief:
Denial. Definitely during those initial shocking hours after the phone call at Jessie's house. A big chunk of me continued to be in denial. On street corners and in shopping malls, I still saw Sam running and laughing. They were all blond-haired impostors. Something in the dungeon of my subconscious I clung to the ambulance man's words that Sam would have been a `vegetable' if he'd survived. Several nights a week I dreamt Sam was still alive. I'd sprint through a labyrinth of hospital corridors to find him attached to machines in a darkened room. He'd turn his head and fix me with those blue eyes, just as when he was born. I'd wake up, heart thumping, pillow saturated.
Anger. (Sam had died taking a pigeon to the vet) Every cell in my body raged at pigeons scattered like pieces of torn paper in the sky, at women driving Ford Escorts, in fact, women drivers in general, and Sam's school friends who had the effrontery to still be living. If only I could be assured the Anger stage would pass. Trouble was I was angry and in denial all at once. And yes, there had been a few pathetic . . .
Bargaining sessions. Sometimes in the bathroom or behind the steering wheel I conducted one-sided negotiations with God, asking Him to please wind the clock back, so the events of 21 January would unfold five seconds earlier, so the car rolled down hill before Sam's foot touched the kerb, the pigeon was delivered safely to the vet and we all sat down around the kitchen table for Steve's lemon meringue pie. What's a little time-shuffling for the Great Creator? In return I'd do anything He (or She) required, including joining a nunnery, taking up women's rugby or pretending to enjoy sleeping in tents. All this would save me from ....
Depression. The wardrobe of sorrow houses many outfits... from self pity to fullblown insanity. But the word depression wasn't big enough to describe the ocean of melancholy I'd slipped into. There was no shoreline. The ocean had no floor. Some days I fought to stay afloat. On others I was suspended lifeless...For Kubler Ross to label this a "stage" was outrageous folly. And then to imply there would be a final stage of...
Acceptance. No way was I ever going to say its okay for a beautiful nine year old boy to die. And Kubler Ross missed a few stages while she was at it, including guilt, selfhatred, hysteria, loss of hope, paranoia, unacceptable confession in public and a powerful urge to open the car door and hurl oneself on to the motorway.
I turned back to "The Cat and its Health".
The cover blurb says "a small black feline helped mend a family's broken hearts". The rest of the story is about how with Cleo's help they did find acceptance - though never the "closure" that journalists seem to think appropriate. Someone said Facing Up to Goodbyes often includes "noticing what is in God's other hand." Perhaps Cleo, for this family, was that different gift, incarnating for the Browns, The Healer some of us know better as Jesus.
To Chew Over: What griefs lurk unattended to in your soul? Can you find a friend to help you with healing?
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.