Spirituality & Grief
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 8, 2015
When I received an academic scholarship in my second year of seminary, I was pleasantly surprised. Though I had done well the first two semesters, those more recent grades stood in stark contrast to my undergraduate career. Reviewing my college transcript recently, I saw how I had started my freshman and sophomore years with a few As, but mostly Bs and Cs. And by my senior year, I had pulled my grades up to almost entirely As. But my junior year? That stood out as pretty dismal – a few Cs, mostly Ds and a couple of Fs.
Ahh yes, my junior year of college. It started off with the death of my grandmother. And then a dear friend who was like a sister to me was diagnosed with colon cancer. Someone quite close to me attempted suicide. The long-term relationship I was in crashed and burned magnificently. A friend of my younger brother killed himself accidentally. And someone else quite close to me ended up hospitalized. That was the fall semester.
I remember going to my professors, crying in their offices, begging for extensions (to this day, I remember the ones that were kind to me – kindness matters.) I couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. I could barely do anything without breaking into tears – much more than I even do now. I coped by staying up late with a close group of friends, going through cheap bottles of wine much too quickly. Not exactly the healthiest of coping techniques.
I hope and pray that that fall of 1991 will always hold the record for the number of losses I experience in a short amount of time. Even that spring, I struggled to keep up. When my parents threatened to remove me from college, that was one more loss I just could not allow, and I managed to pull myself together just enough to eek by.
Fast forward just six months later, and you wouldn’t recognize me. Acing the computer science courses I had failed just a year earlier, and then falling in love with the first anthropology course I took and lamenting that senior year was too late to change my major. By my senior year, I aced all my classes except that one darn racquetball course. So close!
What caused such a turn around? I couldn’t have expressed it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that a large part of the change was due to processing my grief. Grieving all these losses brought me into relationship with my core self. It stripped away all the layers of strength and protection I had carefully built up. And it brought me into relationship with the world – it made me feel a part of something larger. That was one reasons why I became so drawn to anthropology that last year: I became acutely aware of my place in the world, and the lives and suffering not just of myself but of those around me. This same awareness, which was just germinating in that horrible year, would eventually lead me to seminary, and ministry. Though I never would have labeled it as such at the time, I can look back and see that that fall of 1991 was, at it’s core, a spiritual experience for me.
In order to understand the connection between grief and spirituality, let’s do a bit of “grieving 101”. Whether we are grieving the loss of a loved one, the loss of a future we had come to look forward to, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of prestige or influence – when we lose something or someone we care about, we grieve its loss.
When I do memorial services, I do a brief primer on grief in the service. I find it’s helpful to remind us of three things about grief: first, I say that there is no one right way to grieve. Each of us finds our own way. The work of grief is to honor what we’ve lost.
And grief doesn’t really go away. This is the second thing I share. Grief isn’t something people get over. Instead, time teaches us to weave each loss into the fabric of our lives. And as we do, we can become stronger, more compassionate and more loving as a result of the loss. In time we hopefully will come to some new sense of peace.
And finally, I tell people that when we lose some thing or someone that we love, it also brings back every other loss we’ve ever suffered. Our grief becomes compounded.
Applying this to my semester of hell, I can see the growth in myself – in time, I did come to a new sense of peace. But it never went away, as evidenced by my tears these 20+ years later. And I was never the same person again. I had suffered, and I grew a deeper compassion, and sense of gravitas, as a result. I can feel that younger me, confused and confounded, even when I experience grief today – I feel her less as the number of losses I grieve becomes larger each year, but I feel her there.
Notice how I don’t address Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief in what I say in memorial services. In her book On Death and Dying, originally published in 1969, Kübler-Ross found that there was not much research into the emotional experience of dying, and so she took the stories of terminally ill patients and brought them to the public in her best selling book. Kübler-Ross posits 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Though she never intended these to be understood as a linear progression, the public co-opted them as such, and so people would ask questions like “What stage in the grieving process are you? Are you at Acceptance yet? I’m still stuck in Bargaining…” Additionally, the book was neither a scientific study, nor was it a study of grief in general. It was simply a discussion of some of the major emotional reactions people have to the experience of dying. Yes, grief can be a part of that experience, but death is not the totality of grief. So while Kübler-Ross gave us some language to begin to discuss grief, she is neither the final, nor the only word.
Another model for understanding grief is proposed by psychotherapist David Richo, in his 2008 book When the Past Is Present. He posits that grief is composed of three feelings: sadness that something was lost, anger that it was taken away, and fear that it will never be replaced. While he has much that is useful to say, I feel these three feelings are an oversimplification of grief, and don’t explain the wild and crazy emotional roller-coaster that grief can be.
My current favorite reading about grief is by my friend and colleague the Rev. Mark Belletini. Mark just completed his thirty-seventh and final year in parish ministry. He retired from First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, where he served for seventeen years. He previously served two congregations in California, and was chair of the commission that produced our grey hymnal. Rev. Belletini was one of the first openly gay Unitarian Universalist ministers, and he served congregations in the San Francisco area, during the 80s and 90s – the height of the AIDS epidemic. He recounts going to multiple funerals for friends each week, and what that loss did to him. In his book Nothing Gold Can Stay, he uses his own expediences as a lens through which to look the many varied forms of grief.
Mark writes, that grief, he has come to see, “is not a single feeling in and of itself but a whole symphony of feelings, some seemingly deeply dissonant from each other.” For example, grief can include sorrow, and it can also include joy. We may feel sad at the loss of a loved one, and joy when we remember the love we shared with them.
Grief can include guilt, and it can also include gratitude. We may feel like we should have spent more time with someone who we have lost, and at the same time feel gratitude for what they brought to our lives.
Grief can include anger, and also relief. We may be angry that something we cared about was taken from us, or angry at ourselves for not acting the way we wish we would have. And at the same time we may feel relief that a difficult relationship or job has been terminated, or that a loved one’s suffering has ended.
And so much more.
Grief is a complicated set of emotions, not just one, or two, or even five. When someone grieving comes to Rev. Belletini, he tells them “everything is grief for a while: tears and laughter both, depression and joy, relief and crankiness, desolation and fresh openings into life.”
This doesn’t make it easy, though. In fact, grieving is very difficult work. “The whole effort to focus on the ordinary needs of life—food, laundry, and so forth—in the midst of grief can feel as though you had just spent three hours running…or lifting weights in the gym.” But this effort, and the way it is often hard for us to focus and concentrate when we are grieving, Mark says, also helps to serve a healing function. Mark writes that the way the grieving heart forms a cocoon around itself:
It isn’t anything to fear, although it certainly can be confusing and disruptive…This cocoon creates a delicate but real spaciousness separated from the demands and duties and worries and relentless schedules of modern-day life. It takes room to grieve, room that our frantic, confusing, and narcissistic modern world refuses to notice or offer.
Another colleague of mine the Rev. Gary James, writes about the importance of this kind of cocooning as “the winter of the heart.” He says, “In the winter of the heart one is invited to discover a faith that grapples with pain and uncertainty; grapples with evil, loss, and the mystery of death, and in so doing, discovers hope and a deep joy on the winter-fallow landscape.” Though it is not always possible, and though we often don’t realize it at the time, grieving can give us entry into this winter of the heart and allow us to emerge with a deeper faith. Our grieving, as painful as it can be, can teach us about who we are, and about our connection to one another. As Francis Weller writes, “The gift of grief is an affirmation of life, and of our intimacy with the world.” In this way, grief is something that, well lived, can help us discover our purpose, our reason for being, as Daniel the Leaf put it in our moment for all ages this morning.
In this way, grieving can be a spiritual experience. Henri Nowen defines a spiritual experience as something that doesn’t “remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” Grieving can do this – lead us deeper into the world. Grieving isn’t easy, but then most spiritual experiences aren’t – they exact some price from us. Experiencing a loss can force us to confront the spiritual questions we may have been avoiding or haven’t taken time to address, the questions that get at the very heart and meaning of life: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live or How can I go on? The answers aren’t always what we were expecting, and sometimes can be quite painful themselves. That was definitely my expereince in college, as I struggled to answer these questions as wave after wave of loss hit me. Singer songwriter Mary Gauthier captures this experience in her song Mercy Now. “We hang in the balance between hell and hallowed ground.” At minimum, we will experience the loss of who we were before, which is something that gets mixed into the grieving process. This can sometimes make us want to shy away from grieving, or deny it. But as Rev. Belletini writes, “Refusing to embrace grief in all its richness is like deciding to hold our breath to live more fully, or pretending we are not thirsty when we are.”
When we are able to embrace our grief, to make room for it in our lives, grief can connect us to the larger world. Because all of us have grieved, have suffered loss. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism says that all of life is suffering. That everyone hurts.
Helen Keller recognized the universality of grief. She wrote:
We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world- the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding.
Moving through the grieving process can force us to find meaning, or at least, make peace. Belletini writes that “Reflecting on our grief can help us understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and in some ways it offers us glimpses of hope by outlining what we are becoming. Thus, grief can be seen finally as a gift that blesses and illumines our mortality and our very existence in this world.”
Would I have understood any of this when I was in the midst of that deep, heavy grief my junior year of college? No. Do I think about it when I experience loss now? Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes, when I am grieving and feel more vulnerable than usual, when I seem to laugh for no reason or cry whenever someone says or does something kind, I do reflect on those words of Helen Keller, and on the wisdom of my friend Mark Belletini. When it seems that my sorrow is too great to be borne, I sometimes feel my connection to the world, and to that great family of the heavy-hearted into which my grief has given me entrance. And I do, inevitably, feel about me their arms, their sympathy, their understanding. And what a gift this is. What a blessing.
When you find yourself in the midst of grief, and I can say with assurance that you will one day if you haven’t already, may you find such comfort and may it give you a glimpse of hope and bring you peace. For to grieve is to love and to love is to give praise and thanksgiving for the life which has blessed us all. May it be so. Blessed be.