Some years ago, I had an eye-opening, heart-opening experience that taught me a lesson about grief that I’ve never forgotten. It happened like this. When I was in the Coast Guard, I had bought myself a wristwatch. It was a Seiko and it cost me about $75; not the fanciest thing on the market, but a nice watch. I wore it for years. But then it broke, and all of a sudden, I found myself in mourning for that watch. I was crying and angry. I was completely shocked by my own reaction. But for about a week, I just couldn’t seem to get past it.
Eventually, Pam and I sat down to talk it through. That’s always been the kind of relationship we’ve had. I remember her asking me, what does losing this watch remind you of? Well, I stopped to think for a minute, and suddenly I found myself transported back to the seventh grade. My parents had given me a really nice wristwatch for my birthday and I loved it. This was at a time when my mom and dad weren’t getting along very well. Their relationship was starting to come unraveled. They were angry at each other a lot. But they put their differences aside for my birthday and gave me this beautiful watch; a Seiko. And then I lost it. It was stupid really. I had put it on a hook in my gym locker when I went out for Phys Ed. Getting dressed, I didn’t see it there on the hook and I ran off to my next class without it. When I realized what I’d done, I ran back to get it, but it wasn’t there anymore. I was devastated.
Years later, when my Coast Guard watch broke, I got hooked right back into all of the sadness and loss of my earlier experience, not only of losing the watch itself, but of all the trauma of my parent’s divorce. When Pam helped me to finally make that connection, the eye-opening and heart-opening lesson I learned is that the griefs we suffer never really go away. They blend into one another. They become part of us, part of our story, part of what other people need to know about us if they truly want to know who we are.
Grief is a natural and normal part of our human experience. All of us go through it at one time or another. It is the healing process we go through after any significant loss. But it’s also something that we would usually prefer to avoid when we can, like the plague. Lately that hasn’t been so easy, for any of us. Think of all the losses we’ve been suffering this year; the loss of familiar routines, of warm hugs and face to face conversations, or the freedom to just go on about our lives without having to wear masks and sanitize our hands. There are many who have lost jobs, or people they love, or a sense of confidence in how our great nation responds in times of crisis. Plenty of people have lost faith, and hope, and courage, and don’t know when these things might be coming around again. Make no mistake, this has been a year of tremendous loss for people all over the world. And when we suffer loss, our natural human response is to grieve. And the best we can do in those times, is to let it happen.
There’s a wonderful song that Pam and I love by the Wailin’ Jenny’s on their Bright Morning Stars album. It’s called Storm Comin’, and it captures this spirit beautifully..
When that storm comes, don’t run for cover.
When that storm comes, don’t run for cover.
When that storm comes, don’t run for cover.
Don’t run from the comin’ storm, cause you can’t keep the storm from comin’.
That is so true. It’s entirely natural for us to want to run away from the storms of grief, but the best we can do is to not fight them.
That said, grieving is certainly not the same for everyone. When I was first in ministry, one of the most popular books on the subject was called, “Good Grief.” I used to keep a dozen copies in my office at church to pass out to people in mourning. It was written by Granger Westberg in 1961. Westberg was a chaplain at the Chicago Divinity School. He was expected to preach a few times a year at the Rockefeller Chapel. In March of 1961, he gave a sermon on grief, in which he talked about the ten stages people typically go through when they experience a loss. The response to his sermon was overwhelming, so he decided to turn it into a book. It’s a little thing. I read it again a couple of days ago, for the umpteenth time. It only took me about an hour. And even though it’s a bit dated, the information is still solid and helpful some 60 years later. I can highlight it for you just be reading the chapter headings:
Stage One: We Are in a State of Shock
Stage Two: We Express Emotion
Stage Three: We Feel Depressed and Very Lonely
Stage Four: We May Experience Physical Symptoms of Distress
Stage Five: We May Become Panicky
Stage Six: We Feel a Sense of Guilt About the Loss
Stage Seven: We Are Filled with Anger and Resentment
Stage Eight: We Resist Returning
Stage Nine: Gradually Hope Comes Through
Stage Ten: We Struggle to Affirm Reality
Throughout the book, Granger makes a point of saying how normal this all is, and that we face grief best when we simply allow it to be whatever it needs to be. But, there’s been a lot of research on grief in the last 60 years, and people have come to understand that this idea of “stages of grief” isn’t necessarily all that helpful. Not everyone goes through all the stages. They don’t follow any particular order. They don’t progress in a predictable or linear pattern. Some people grieve quickly, and others take years. There’s a whole lot more to how people grieve than Granger knew. So, these days, it seems more helpful to think of grief as a multi-dimensional process.
Some of you may know, that when we lived in Maine, my wife Pam actually worked as a grief counselor for our local hospice program. I went back to her copious notes on the subject and found a couple of wonderful resources that I’m going to share with all of you through my “In the Spirit” blog this coming week. The best piece I found was on “Principles of Grief.” It pretty much speaks for itself, so I thought I would just share it with you now.
Principles of Grief
1. Grief is a normal, natural and healthy response to a physical or symbolic loss. Any end to, or change in, relationships to people, places, or events can cause grief.
2. Grief is the process of adjusting to a loss. Grief helps us integrate our losses through life. All losses (even those not related to death) must be grieved.
3. Grief is not a feeling, but a process that may include every feeling a human can possibly experience.
4. The intensity, duration and experience of grief are unique to each person. We should respect how each person’s grief unfolds and accept that it will be different for others. All relationships are unique.
5. We all grieve in our own way and time. Grief is very individual. There are no reactions so universal that all, or even most, people will experience them.
6. Grief is a lifelong process that changes constantly. Grief ebbs and flows, and takes surprising turns over time.
7. Every person has the capacity to heal from loss. Those who accept the process and have support enhance their ability to recover.
To these principles of grief, we can add a list of the common experiences of Grief. It is normal and natural to experience all, some or none of the following during grief:
• a sense of shock and disbelief
• fatigue, even after getting enough sleep
• confusion, difficulty concentrating
• distraction: frequent thoughts about the deceased, or what happened
• frequent minor illnesses
• ranges of emotions, such as sadness, anger, irritability, guilt, hopelessness, as well as relief, love, moments of happiness, numbness
• waves of emotion
• a tendency to daydream
• thoughts about the meaning of life, and your own mortality
• re-evaluation of all that is important in life
Beautiful, yes? Considering all that has been going on for all of us this year, I would be very surprised if any of us couldn’t find ourselves on that list somewhere. It has been a rough year.
At the same time, it needs to be said that we are people of faith. That doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. What it means is that we have a hope that shines through our grief, a light that shines in our darkness. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “may [you] not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thesalonians 4:13) He wasn’t saying don’t grieve, he was saying we should allow the hope of our faith to sustain us in our grief. Our hope, as Isaiah said so beautifully, is that “the Lord shall renew [our] strength, [we] shall mount up with wings like eagles, [we] shall run and not be weary, [we] shall walk and not faint.” One of the things I like about Granger’s book, 60 years later, is that he really lifts up the role faith can play in our grieving. In his words,
People of faith do not just suddenly get that way. Like the athlete who must stay in training, these people are always in training for whatever may come at any time. When loss comes, they are ready for it. It is just one of many griefs they have learned to wrestle with creatively. They grieve deeply over their loss, to be sure … but they eventually come to understand that everything has not been taken from them. They realize that life will never be the same again, but they begin to sense that there is much in life that can be affirmed. And to affirm something is to say that it is good.
(Westberg, Granger E.. Good Grief 50th Ann Ed (pp. 74-75). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.)
Now, as you well know, grief is very personal to me right now. My beloved wife is in hospice, and I and my family are all experiencing the emotional roller coaster ride of grieving a storm of loss that we can see coming all too clearly. I can’t tell you how profoundly grateful we are to have so many of you loving and supporting us in this journey. Your love, your thoughts and prayers, and all the gifts you have showered on us are simply breathtaking. But I bring this sermon to you today not simply because of our grieving, but because, in one way or another, we are all grieving. And what we need, more than anything else, is to trust that this painful and confusing process is ultimately for our healing. When the storms of grief come, don’t run for cover. Allow them to be whatever they need to be for your healing. Hold on to hope, and know you are surrounded by the love of family, friends, and the Spirit of God in Christ, who will not ever let us go.
Let me close with something else I found in Pam’s files. This is by a woman named Annie O’Shaughnessy.
I do not pretend to know loss like some people know loss. But I have had a taste of it. There is a real sadness in the passing of a friend, or in having to move from your home or losing a job you love, but I think the difficulty that can knock us down comes from the belief we hold that with the loss we have lost ourselves. Who are we without that job or that relationship? Possibly we’ve spent so many years investing in those things that we’ve come to literally equate them with who we are.
My experience is that when my mind has finally exhausted itself with its drama and dark imaginings, when I am cried out, scoured out, emptied out, there is a space there inside me that feels limitless. I know now that my task is to simply rest in that space and resist the urge to anesthetize myself or to rush forward to the next thing that will identify me. My job is to pray for compassion, to keep my heart open, and to believe that grief is cleansing––removing the unimportant, the superficial, and the false. When I’ve been able to do that, I’ve felt a type of peace and love I had not experienced before––a refuge that can’t be lost.
May we all come to know, that our grieving can be good. May we all come to know peace and love at the center of the storm, and that mighty refuge of God’s grace, that cannot be lost.