The Complexities of Grief
The Complexities of Grief
January 24, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.
The Book of Nehemiah is the account of the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem. It had been destroyed when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Its restoration meant that the city was once again a place of importance.
Many people were scattered after the fall of Israel, forcibly sent away from their homes, living elsewhere within the Babylonian Empire. Eventually the Babylonians fell to another empire, the Persians, who had themselves been subjugated but they eventually took control away from their oppressors. Now the Persians were allowing the people of Israel to rebuild.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
The people were crying. They were crying at a moment meant to be a celebration. In one sense, the reading of the law was more important than the rebuilding of the wall. The Persian emperor was allowing the province of Judea to be governed under the Law of Moses. This recitation truly represented the restoration of Israel. So Nehemiah and Ezra said what is wrong with you all? Do not weep, do not mourn. This is not appropriate, not at this time. Now is not the time for tears.
According to the notes in my Bible translation, the people knew that they had broken God’s laws, so they wept. They had become presumptuous, “stiffening their necks” according to the author of the Book of Nehemiah. They wept because they understood that they had sinned against God. That is one theory.
In the Bible, the authors often seek to explain what happened at a certain time. In some instances, we hear descriptions of events or even conversations with God. In this instance, the author who set down the account of Nehemiah and Ezra reading the law to the people is telling us what the people were feeling. No offense to this author, but I do not know if that can be taken as true. It may have been assumed that the people were crying because of an outpouring of guilt. But that assumption does not ring true to me.
Remember that the law was being read to the people and it was being explained. What this probably means is that the law was being recited to people who could not understand a word of Ancient Hebrew. It would be like a modern audience hearing a long passage in Latin. A few scholarly types might be able to follow it, but not the vast majority. Many people in exile in Babylon may have only rarely heard Hebrew spoken. These people were refugees and they had been so for many years. Most probably had never set foot in Israel. Now they were being resettled into towns from which their families originally came.
Imagine if one of you was told to move back to your family’s country of origin. Pack a few things. Dress warmly. Take what you can carry. Say good bye to your life. Now you get to live in a ruined country, one you have the privilege of rebuilding. Oh, and by the way, you have to leave your non-Israelite wives behind. Why? Because we say so. And you now have to begin tithing to the Temple in addition to whatever else is owed to the Persians. But now you will be governed under the laws of Moses. So what is there to cry about?
There are many reasons other than guilt to explain why these people are crying. They have lost their way of life. It may not have been the traditional way of life of the Israelites, but these particular people had long since left Israel behind. The joy of Nehemiah and Ezra is understandable because returning to Israel is what they most desired. For others, this was not a time of celebration. It was one of sorrow, as they mourned what they had lost. It was a time of grief.
The English word “grief” comes from an Old French verb grever, which means burdened. Grief is a deep sense of sadness often caused by the death of a person. As its word origin suggests, grief is a weight upon someone, an almost physical presence. It arises from the loss of a loved one or some other troubling occurrence. People can grieve when they lose a job, when they are diagnosed with an illness, or when they go through a divorce.
The underlying causes of grief vary, but the feeling of grief is profound. It is painful, painful in a way equaling that of an injury. It has emotional effects, clearly, but it can affect people physically, mentally, and even religiously. The very fact that some tragic event has occurred can disrupt every aspect of a life. And our responses to grief can be just as varied and complicated.
There is no one picture of grief. There are the famous five stages of grief set forth by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first we deny what has happened and then become angry when it sinks in. There is then bargaining, one presumes with God, followed by sadness which finally resolves into acceptance. It is a nice sounding theory. Research suggests that they may not, however, truly reflect the pathway of grief.
It is comforting to have categories, a checklist of stages to watch for in ourselves or in others. But it is worth being cautious of hard and fast rules. For example, some people are naturally resilient to grief. They do not have enduring emotional reactions to death or loss. That does not mean that these people do not feel the loss, but that those feelings are manageable and of a shorter duration. If you know a person who does not seem to be grieving on track with the five stages, it might mean that they are having trouble with acknowledging their feelings. But it could also be an example of someone who has this innate resilience.
Why do we grieve at all? From a purely practical perspective, it does not seem to be terribly useful. It is painful and debilitating, arising from some event which may be out of our control. Again, grief is not the same as guilt. The Israelites in exile were born to a different life – they had not directly sinned against God, per se, but had to adjust to living in the aftermath of the sins of their ancestors. Guilt generally means that you had something to do with what happened. You can feel guilty and feel grief, a double dose of psychological trauma, but grief does not require guilt.
Then again, grief may inspire feelings of guilt of a different sort. Not guilt for causing the loss, but guilt for having not done something beforehand. I wish I had done something before this person died. I wish we had reconciled, I wish we had taken that vacation. I wish I had had the chance to say good bye.
I recall seeing this at work when I was a hospital chaplain. I was assigned to the intensive care unit and often saw family members contending with major events like strokes and heart attacks, traffic accidents and drug overdoses. You would think there was some typical response, some most likely picture of grief in that waiting room. But there was not. Some people sat vigil, refusing to leave even to the point of physical exhaustion. Others threw themselves into the technical aspects of the situation, calling rehabs and nursing homes, checking and rechecking with specialists and primary care physicians. And still others seemed concerned but not overwhelmed, absorbing the information rather than being overburdened by it. Grief is a burden, but not everyone shares the same weight of grief.
In the same way, there are people for whom grief is all-consuming. Grief may alter the course of our lives depending on the underlying circumstances. But the significance of the event does not always help one predict the scope of grief.
I am friendly with a couple whose child died of cancer when she was very young. I came to know them years after the fact and I did not know about their loss until after some time knowing them. I can only imagine such an event through the lens of my own mind and how I think I might react to it. I do not know how I would recover from such a loss. I did not know them at the time, so perhaps their lives were devastated and disrupted beyond their current picture of seeming health and good spirits. They also have three other children and of course needed to be there for them. I say “of course” because life does go on even as we struggle with grief. I do not say “of course” because I believe that time heals all wounds, or all griefs, at least not automatically.
And I will offer my opinion, and it is just my opinion, about the normal picture of grief, the normal time line and the normal responses. There is nothing normal about grief. Grief may be common, it may even be sadly familiar to some. But grief is not a “norm” and therefore there should not be any expectations as to a normal pathway of grief.
In a sermon about grief, it would be nice if I could give you all some pointers, for yourselves and others. This is what you should do to help resolve your grief. And that is how you should respond when those around you struggle with grief. Do this, not that. Take two platitudes and call me in the morning. I wish I could help you all, but grief is not easily addressed. And religion may be no better than science when it comes to treating grief. Religion does not need to be worse at it than science, but sometimes the expectations of religion directly clash with a person’s pathway through grief.
Think back to Nehemiah and Ezra. Why are you mourning and weeping? This is a happy time. Nehemiah and Ezra had everything they had hoped for, a return to Jerusalem, the restoration of the laws of Moses. They saw these events as the culmination of their prayers. So knock off all that crying. You are spoiling it for the rest of us. That is often a religious response to grief.
It is all a part of God’s plan. Things happen for a reason. God needed another angel. If you were looking for some constructive advice on the subject of grief, please take note that these little religious gems are among the worst possible things to say. We struggle for something to say in times of tragedy and loss. But finding something quick and easy to say often has more to do with avoiding personal discomfort than helping someone navigate the storm of grief.
A few years ago, a friend of mine suffered the loss of his brother. The man died in a car accident. It was early in the morning and he was commuting to work. He crested a rise on the highway and slammed into a disabled truck. He died of his injuries. He was the father of young children. Which of those tried and true statements would have worked here? What aspect of God’s plan was advanced by this death? Even if you believe that our lives are dictated by wider cosmic concerns, there was no benefit to the family to hear these theological opinions. They are much like Nehemiah and Ezra telling the grieving people to cheer up, to knock it off. Our beliefs are our own. And our griefs are also entirely our own.
What to say then? The simplest thing to say is “I am sorry for your loss.” This is the seemingly inadequate statement made in a receiving line at a wake or after a memorial service. It is inadequate, but it is not likely to offend. If you know this person well, it might not be the last conversation, however.
I recall going to the wake for my friend’s brother and the wait in the receiving line was two hours. I decided to speak to him after the funeral, though I did not really have planned much to say. I asked how he, my friend, was doing. Terribly. Then I asked him to tell me about his brother. And he did. It took a while. That may not always be the easiest question to ask someone who is grieving the loss of someone close. It may elicit stories or spawn a chorus of tears. Or both in alternating measure. Asking should be followed by listening.
Grief is complicated because it is generally the realization that we have lost someone that we love. There is a hole in our lives where something we cared about used to be. So when asked to talk about the person who is missing, it may be a fluctuating cycle of telling a story and then processing what that story now means. A funny anecdote may remind us that we will no longer laugh with that person. A recent memory may be sore to the touch. An old reminiscence may be bring to mind the many years the two people were together.
The goal is not to avoid having people cry. That has more to do with avoiding discomfort than being present while the person grieves. And the goal is also not to make people cry, not to help them “get it all out.” There is no set amount of grief, like venom from a snake bite. And some people will respond to a tragic event more resiliently than we might expect. We have no way of knowing what they are thinking and feeling. If we are empathetic, we might personally imagine being inconsolable in the face of a particular loss. That expectation is ours to put aside, not theirs to satisfy. We all grieve differently.
And what if we are grieving ourselves? I am sorry to say that there is also no easy answer, no five step system, no easy resolution. There are ways of processing grief with the help of others. Counselors and clergy, friends and family can be with us through the loss, the rising and falling of grief in our hearts. That does not make the grief go away, but it is can be comforting to have someone present amidst our grief.
As some of you may know, I grew up living in a funeral home, the son of an undertaker. I will often get a call from my brother, the current proprietor, asking if I can fill in for a funeral. I need to fill in because the deceased did not have any connection to a religious community. Sometimes they were not very religious, other times they just did not have a relationship with a congregation. These are often small funerals of a half dozen people or so. I have a few readings and prayers that I use, a stock homily if there is no family member to offer a eulogy — and there often is not. It all generally runs about 15 to 20 minutes.
Each time I do this, I have to balance my feelings between sadness and satisfaction. I am sad because it seems so limited, so abbreviated a memorial after a lifetime in the world. But I have some satisfaction of knowing that I was there even in a small way, even in my scant capacity. I grieve a little for these perfect strangers for a moment. But then I get to go home.
In my stock homily, I often use the same quote. It is from, of all people, Queen Elizabeth II. The queen was speaking at the funeral of her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. The queen and the princess had a complicated relationship to say the least. Elizabeth remarked that grief is the price that we pay for love. Grief is the price that we pay for love.
The more we have loved, the deeper we have felt the presence of someone in our hearts, the larger and the longer the grief might be after he or she is gone. That love may be complicated and so might our grief. Words left unsaid or said too often. Mistakes made and left unresolved. Forgiveness sought but never given.
When I think about love, I sometimes imagine that it is like a beautiful stained glass window. So many colors, so many pieces fitting together. It is a story of light and meaning, sometimes only comprehensible to someone who really understands all the symbols and allusions, the little inside jokes of a life. Stained glass is unusual in that it is beautiful when the light is shining through it, shining toward our eyes. If it is night-time, however, you cannot see the stained glass while inside the church. You see dark shapes and bent pieces of lead. People outside the church can now see the colors and the images, because the light comes from within the church.
This reminds me of grief. We can see the beauty of the light for a time, the colors of a life. But when the sun sets. Those colors fade, replaced by darkness. Grief is that loss of light. The beauty is still there, the colors and the shapes and the story are all still there to be seen. But not by us, not right away. For us the light of love has dimmed because we knew it so well, so intimately. We were used to that light shining in and with it gone we stop seeing for a time.
So now we need to go outside, outside of what we knew, outside of what we loved so much. And that can be hard to do. It is hard to stand and hard to walk. It is hard to open the door and especially hard to close that door. We may never want to do so. That is understandable.
Hopefully, in time, it will happen though. It may not be easy. It may not happen as soon as anyone might like, particularly not the person going through it. But with the passage of time we might eventually see some of the beauty of what we knew before the darkness of grief. See such beauty in a new light with eyes free from tears.