We are wired to grieve. The ability and need to mourn is built in to everyone.
This probably sounds like bad news to people who are grieving or for people who fear an impending loss. How could God create us so that when something bad happens we end up feeling so lost, so empty—wishing to touch a loved one we will never see again, or pining after a lost past that will never come back. How could God do that to us? We couldn’t God have made us to just get on with it?
We are wired to grieve because we are built to love. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Because we are built to relate to others, to make attachments with people, pets, things, places, and events as loving and caring people, grief is inevitable. We are built to love, and so we grieve.
As I hunker down into middle age and begin to look at what, God willing, will be the second half of my life, and as I look back at two decades of priesthood and countless times I have sat with dying and grieving people; as I sit with people in transition and have lived them, I have come to some conclusions about love, loss, habit and grief. I have come to believe that a key to living life peaceably and with wholeness grows out of being able to “grieve well.”
Grief is healing. It is how the body, mind and spirit heal after the loss of someone or something important. These important relationships can be very big and central in our lives—our spouses, our parents, our children—or they can be very mundane—our habits, our jobs, our things. When we lost what is important to us, our bodies, minds and souls need to heal. Loss is like a wound and grief is the process of healing.
We are trained for grief our whole lives. Have you ever watched teenagers when they graduate from high school? They write things in their yearbooks like “friends 4 ever” and “I will never forget you” and all kinds pledges of eternal friendship and connection. Yet these very same kids are, with some exceptions, so anxious to go on to the next thing that they scarcely look back. They will read these notes years later with mixed feeling of nostalgia and poignancy. They will smile to themselves at their earnestness and miss the connections that they left behind.
Most people successfully negotiate that loss. There are no euphemisms for graduation. It is shouted out as a badge of accomplishment! Most high school graduates are quick to take all the energy they poured into academics, extra-curricular activity and friendship and direct them elsewhere. Many have no trouble putting away the high school mementoes—and many parents will bug them in later years about coming to get “their stuff.”
And yet that first year in the next thing that comes along after high school can be rough. They will have to live in a new community—college, the military, the work world—and that can be difficult. They will have to form new habits, new ways of being and thinking, and new relationships. Soon they will think of themselves as something other than a high school kid.
Yet, even years later, they will run across a former teacher or an old classmate and on seeing them it will be as if they never left. Old stories will be shared. The teacher is still called “Missus” or “Mister” or “Miss” even though they are technically peers
We all know how that goes. What we probably did not realize is that the transition from high school to something else, which most people successfully negotiate, is also one of the many ways we learn how to negotiate loss. The last lesson of high school is how to grieve well.
Of course, this loss and transition is absolutely nothing compared to the loss of a spouse or a parent or a child to death. This loss does not compare to the loss of an ability or a marriage. It doesn’t even hold up well against the loss of a job. We knew graduation was coming and we looked forward to it, and many losses are unexpected and, if they are anticipated, are met with dread. But it is a loss that most of us have navigated well. It is but one of dozens of losses that we have grieved well. And it shows us how, when the Big Losses come (and they will) that we both the ability and the tools to grieve well.
Grieving well is a process that we have to trust. No two processes are every the same. And yet they are all familiar to people who have lived them. They will unfold differently for everyone but generally speaking there are four things that everyone who grieves must accomplish.
We must name our losses. We often cause mix-up for children when we are facing grief with them by misnaming what is going on. Death is death, it is not sleep, or going away. Passing through the grave and gate of death into life immortal is but one image we use to describe the truth that we believe that God cares for the dead. But there is a difference between “passing away” and “dying” and the catch in our throat that keeps us from saying the “D-word” is but one sign that we know the truth, we just can’t yet speak it.
We must feel our pain. There was a time in my early chaplaincy when we newly minted chaplains, counselors and nurses used to do everything but pinch grieving people to make them cry before letting them leave our sight. It was supposed to be good for them, like eating broccoli. What we overly earnest students did not yet get, is that we are not after tears per se, but we were called upon to help people—gently and compassionately—experience the pain of their grief. Tears may or may not be involved. Pain hurts and we want avoid it. Not long ago, doctors used to prescribe things to “help people sleep” but what was really designed to numb pain that seemed—and in fact is—unbearable. Hugs, exercise, talking, keeping busy, telling the story, and, yes, even crying are but a few ways we can work through the pain of the loss. It is essential that people experience and move through their hurt at a pace that works for them because this is part of the way we heal.
We must adjust to a new environment. The most difficult and poignant stories I hear from grieving people is continue to live in a world where the loved one is absent. The empty chair at dinner, sleeping alone for the first time in years, having no one call you at work to remind you to buy milk on the way home, are all little signs of the fact that the person we love is missing from our lives. Developing new habits, rethinking old rituals, finding ways to remember our loved one, and, eventually, forming new relationships are all part of this process. Eventually there will be friends and acquaintances who will know us and never will have known our loved one, and they will still be our friends. This does not mean that we can ever replace the person we love, it does mean that our world will re-form and continue to grow as we heal.
We must direct our energy elsewhere. Going back to that high school picture, there are always people in every class who work hard to keep the group together. We need those folks to make class notes and organize reunions, but even they know that the friendships and relationships change and people move on. People don’t go to class, they go to work. They don’t have girlfriends or boyfriends, they have wives or husbands or at maybe lovers and other friends. The energy they put into one period of life with gusto now goes elsewhere. When we grieve well the same thing happens. We take the energy that used to go into this one relationship and they are directed elsewhere. Usually not all into one place, but we spread it around into friendships, grandchildren, work, hobbies, church, creativity. Maybe we will work for a cause that connects us to our loved one. Maybe we will go fishing. But part of the healing of grieve is that we take the energy and put it to new use.
In summary, to do these four tasks, We must make memory. We need to make memory out of our losses. To remember is to “put back together.” When we have a memorial service, we are literally “making memory.” Telling the story of the person who has died or of the life we have left is essential to help us make meaning of both the person (thing or event) and our loss. How we make meaning out of the loss is essential to how well we grieve. A person who wants to freeze time—keep life just as it was as when the loved one died will have difficulty grieving well. So will the person who wants to move on as if the person never existed. In between these two extremes is making memory that heals.
Too often over the past several weeks, I have read and reflected upon Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John “In my Fathers house are many rooms” and “I go to prepare a place for you….that where I am you may be also.” I have said that I believe these rooms are furnished by us right now. They are filled with relationships, events, stories and mementoes that tell the story of a life lived with fullness and holy imperfection. We find that the stories that furnish this room is not a mere biography, but a living Gospel story of how this person lived in relationship with God, other people and creation. It is a story of how these people lived, and continue to live, “marked as Christ’s own forever.”
When we make memory, we are not only telling the story of the person we love or the times we miss, but we are writing our own gospel story.
I believe that we are wired to grieve. That like it or not—know it or not—we are trained and prepared for the Big Losses by how we handle the Little ones. I have discovered that where a person understands their life is directly dependent on whether or not they learn to grieve well. Do we see life a series of mounting deficits, of cascading disappointments longing to be made up for? Or do we see life as a blessing and abundant experience waiting to be built upon? Often the answer to this most fundamental question comes out of how people come to understand both the routine and major losses in their lives.
We are wired to grieve because we are built to love. That is how God made us. It shows that we are in God’s image. It is a sign into the “why” of the Incarnation—why does God go to such lengths to draw us to Godself? As Christians, we know that before Easter resurrection comes Good Friday loss, but before Good Friday loss comes Christmas birth, Epiphany knowledge and the transitions and trials of Lent. We are a resurrection people because Christian life grows out of how we pass through life’s changes and chances in the company of our incarnate, risen Lord.
My blessing to you: In all of life, grieve well.