Grief and Loss and embracing the unpredictability of life.
How many times has someone told me lately, “The Jewish culture has it right…”? Two or three unrelated persons have said this to me about the custom of shiva, the week of grieving the Jews enter when someone has died. “…[T]he visitor comes to the house of mourning, silently, to join the bereaved in his loneliness, sorrowfully to sit alongside him, to think his thoughts and to linger on his loss.”1 Indeed, Jewish culture is right.
Grief and mourning are uncomfortable in all cultures, but Americans more than most seem to eschew this process with gusto. Let us be “Happy, happy, happy,” anything but grieved. Let us paste on a smile and say life is all right when everything is tumbling down around our ears and we feel desperately alone. Let us only close our church services with clapping and upbeat songs. Let us be anything but silent or sorrow-filled. Let us celebrate sunny days, but ignore brooding rain. Let us get over that break-up next week, the death of our child next month, and the loss of our father by the time we return to work. Let the healing be instant. Let us do anything but lament. We’re afraid of sorrow. We don’t want to hurt before we heal. We rebel and reel because we can’t control grief.
Some friends of my family lost their sweet, college-age daughter in an icy car accident last year. Her death has changed every family member’s life. Christmas and New Year’s will always be cast with the pall of her final days in the hospital; of praying for a miracle that never came. I don’t know why—and I don’t pretend to. Our friends don’t need us to give stupid, hurtful platitudes. They just need us to sit with them in the ashes. They need us to remember their joyful daughter. They need us to talk about her if they want to, to talk about anything else if they don’t. Their other children still need their parents to be their parents. They still need to be recognised in their own accomplishments and lives. And they still need to be allowed to grieve—yes, over a year later… For the rest of their lives.
The loss never goes away. That person once existed in this world and now doesn’t—that is a continual loss. Loss doesn’t have a time-table. Grief pricks when you weren’t expecting it…but it is okay to mourn. Let us weep when we remember someone we have lost to the ever-insatiable monster of death.
It is much easier to say that about someone else’s loss. It’s so much harder to live the daily emptiness. There are always regrets, things we wish we had said before that final parting… I wish to goodness sakes I had talked with my grandma on the phone when she was in the hospital. She had so many people there I told my mom I’d wait. I lost my chance to talk with her again. Though I had made sure to tell her I loved her when I saw her last, well, that doesn’t change my weeping right now.
It’s been two years since her death, and it still bubbles up unexpectedly. I catch myself laughing at things only my family would understand, said in Grandma’s voice… “You heard the story, you heard the story!” I catch my breath sharply when I remember, without warning, her saying, “Of all the grandkids, you’re the most like me.” I catch the tears rolling off my nose at all these memories welling up in my mind and in my eyes. The smell of homemade fried chicken always takes me back to childhood birthdays at Grandma and Grandpa’s. For whatever reason, I remember my seventh, tenth, and twenty-first birthdays vividly, there in that Wanamaker house. That house which was their home for half a century, where my dad grew up, and where I learned how to use a slinky—because they had stairs and we didn’t. That house which now belongs to somebody else who has no knowledge of its history. That house that no longer holds my family, yet holds so many of our memories.
Like I said, we can’t control grief—when or where or how it will punch us. But it will hit with a hard right hook, or that unseen uppercut. Let’s be honest, we like to control things. Our appearance to others; how we spend our time and live our days; what we do and what we don’t do; what we eat; what we read…but we cannot control sorrow. It leaks out of our hearts and eyes on the sunny days and the rainy ones. When we laugh and when we swallow that lump in our throats. We cannot make the loss smaller, it only grows bigger with all the things our loved ones miss. It only grows sharper when we can’t ask their advice, hear them tell a story, or catch their laugh in our ears. That is the nature of a curse. Of the Curse. And we cannot control the force of the sucker-punch. I want to say that what we do in the face of the Curse is live…but one day the Curse will try to annihilate us, too. For a time, the voracious Curse will feast on life. But only for a time.
There is a rumour that one day, everything sad will come untrue.2 One day, death will be—finally and completely—eviscerated and defeated. That the grave will have no inhabitants. That death will be swallowed up in life. That God-who-became-man (a Jewish man, no less), myth-become-fact, will complete the redemption process. And all will be made well. L’chaim! To life!
Until then, we weep and mourn. We grieve and lament. We let sorrow chase us into the arms of our Father. We laugh and we live. L’chaim!
Yeah … Jewish people have it just about right.
2. “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land… (Tolkien, J R R, Return of the King, emphasis mine)