The classic Buddhist tale we heard during our lesson for all ages, “The Mustard Seed” reminds us that each and every person on this earth has experienced loss. And like the heartbroken mother in our story, we may think some times when grief comes over us that we are alone in our grief, that the smiling chatty folks around us, the folks doing the work of living day to day don’t know…but of course they do. Not everyone knows the excruciating grief of losing a child, as Kisa Gotami did, but being alive in this mortal world means knowing loss.
And grief, grief is the process by which we heal those holes left in our life through relocation, through divorce, through death. We mammals are designed to feel acutely the loss of one we love, it is a survival mechanism that binds parent to child, that binds together family group and tribe. The more we bring people into our hearts, the deeper the hole they leave if they are taken from us.
I think that we in this age have more trouble with the process of grieving, because we like to move through things quickly. In the classic Jewish tradition mourners take a week to sit quietly with family and friends and observe their grief . They are not to work, they have no other social obligations during this time. They cover the mirrors in their homes to relieve the responsibility, the anxiety about literally “keeping up appearances.” For the most acute losses they observe a period of mourning for a year, as a reminder to themselves and their community that grief ebbs and flows long after the religious services are over. My colleague Craig, who will be coming here to preach in 2 weeks, described grief as an ocean, along whose shore we walk. At any time the waves may come in, wetting the bottoms of our feet and receding, or knocking us over with their power and pulling us under water. When those waves come it is challenge enough if we are in a safe place were we can surrender to our grief, but often times they come while we are driving our car, at our job, at a dinner party, we are disoriented and confused and overwhelmed.
Grief takes many forms- it is as variable as humanity itself. Tears, sadness, we expect. But other emotions like anger? Or numbness? These often take us by surprise, and maybe go unrecognized as grief. We may even notice guilty feelings arising if we imagine we are not grieving the “right way,” for example the very common feeling of relief experienced by survivors when someone who has been struggling for a long time finally dies and has an end to their suffering. Sometimes we are surprised by anger at the person who has left us. Maybe we regret things done or left undone, said or left unsaid. But all these feelings are possible and important and real. Counselors during the peak of the aids crisis noticed that some folks were losing so many friends and loved ones that they had sort of a grief fatigue, that began to grow numb and felt incapable of grieving any more. And so they encouraged those facing these many losses to put on a sad movie and grieve those many losses. Whether it takes the form of tears or irritability, or rage --whether you feel completely numb and empty --all of this is grief, and no one way of grieving is better than another.
I want to acknowledge we grieve not only the relationships that gave us comfort and joy, we also have to grieve the difficult relationships. When we grieve, for example, the loss of a friend or relative from whom we had drifted apart. We grieve not only the loss of what was, but also of what might have been. Perhaps we always assumed that some day we would reconnect, and now we have come to an ending with things still unsaid and undone. We grieve the loss of a future together. We need to grieve even the loss of those who were abusive to us. Maybe we feel rage for how we were hurt, sadness for the healthy relationship we deserved, perhaps guilt that we had wished that person would finally leave our lives. This kind of compound grieving can be hard to navigate, hard to express, and still I think the best we can do is to observe it, to witness each facet as it is uncovered, as it washes over us.
When waves of grief come, however they come, I believe that the best wisdom of the Buddhist teachers is to simply observe it, not to struggle against the undertow, but to let the grief do its work. To let go. The Buddha taught that pain was inevitable, loss was inevitable, but suffering is optional. By that he meant that it is the act of fighting against the current, the big waves, that causes suffering. By holding on to our grief, or by pushing it away, stuffing it down, ignoring it, these are what cause us to suffer. When the waves come, small or overwhelming, I encourage you to pay attention, to give it the time it needs. We don’t always have the luxury of saying “I’m taking the afternoon off because I need to grieve.” But pull over to the side of the road if you are driving. Stand up from your work and take a walk or find a place to sit undisturbed for a few moments, or a few hours. The pain of grief is not like the pain of getting your hand too close to the fire, which tells you to pull away, it is more like the pain of a wound healing.
Grief is the process of knitting back together those holes, those empty places where our loved ones used to be. We wove them so carefully into our lives, and now that they are gone we feel we may unravel without them. My theology professor told us, years after the death of his wife, that he experienced one of the most acute moments of grief as he was ready to leave a party, and looking around for his wife as he had done at the end of every party for 40 years. That hole where our loved ones used to be cause us to stumble- to wonder how can we live each day without them. Loss creates a change in the terrain of our lives, and grief is the process of re-forming our lives, transforming our lives into a new wholeness. Even those waves that drag us under are helping us transform our lives. Those waves are part of the slow process of washing us clean of what is gone, of what we have lost. And so instinctively we struggle, because that pain binds us to what we have lost. Says Dr. Earl A. Grollman, one of the great teachers about death and loss:
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Lest we be washed out to sea, we need anchors or touchstones to keep us tethered to all that is still alive and growing in this world. A favorite movie or poem or piece of music can be a touchstone to bring us back to ourselves. If walking in the woods or gardening restores your soul in ordinary times, when you are awash in grief, you need these things more than ever. For some work can be that anchor, but we must be careful not to use work as a way of blocking out or avoiding our grief. This is not the time for big ambitious projects, but the simple actions that pull you back to yourself, like putting your hands in the earth, or in a dishpan of soapy water. The key is not to expect that this time of grieving will be like other times, but to witness and notice- today I washed 2 dishes and even that was hard. Today I walked in the woods and everything reminded me of her.
The most important touchstone, or anchor, is compassion -- compassion first for your self if you are grieving. When you are not as productive as you might normally be, or patient, or witty, or when you just have trouble putting words together, be compassionate, be kind to yourself, as you would to a dear friend who was grieving. Don’t let your grief come between you and the people who love you. It can be hard to connect with others when those waves come, it is easy to isolate yourself when you are grieving. Because truly, no one can really understand what you are feeling, no one can take your pain away. But no living being can survive in isolation. We need one another.
In his novel Hannah Coulter about a small rural community experiencing the losses of World War 2, Wendell berry writes:
“I need to tell about my people in their grief. I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that never will be filled. But we shut our mouths and go ahead. How we are is ‘Fine.’” [p. 61]
I think we are blessed in this beloved community to know that if we say we are “fine” that folks around us will respect our solitude, our privacy, but we are also a congregation that speaks its joys and concerns out loud. Ours is a community where we have the honor of being present to one another’s grief. Berry continues
“and yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end.” [p. 62]
Whether we are the sort who is comforted by talking about our losses with someone we trust, or whether we feel more comfortable when we “shut our mouths and go ahead.” Still we need on another, and comfort is somehow passed around.
Being with one another in grief is difficult. It is difficult because it may bring our own grief back to us in a fresh way. It is hard because we can never really ease the grief of another- only the miraculous restoration of the one lost could truly fill the hole in their lives. It is difficult because we know how tender the heart is when it is grieving, and sometimes we just say or do the wrong thing, maybe the very thing that would bring comfort to us is painful to our companions. A colleague once told me the cautionary tale of going into the hospital room of a young man dying of aids. She asked him “How are you?” and he replied in fury “how do you think I am! I’m dying!” The lesson my friend took from this moment is to never ask “how are you” but I took a different lesson from it, that if you ask how someone is, you must be ready to listen and stay present with however they really are, whether that is rage, or sadness, or despair, or a need for solitude. I confess to you that despite the training I had in pastoral counseling, when I enter into a conversation with someone who is grieving, I am a little nervous, wondering if my presence will sooth or agitate, whether I will say the wrong thing, but I have made up my mind that I would much rather have a grieving person go away from our conversation saying “That minister is a bumbling idiot” than “Why does no one reach out to me when I need them the most? I feel so terribly alone.”
Any attempt to smooth over the loss will fail- must fail- “he’s in a better place now” or any variant on “it’s for the best” or “life goes on” is an attempt to bring premature closure. It is not developmentally appropriate in acute grief. Usually it speaks more the well-wisher’s discomfort with the depth of grief. Our goal as supportive neighbors, family or friends is not to sooth, not to smooth over, but to be present with the truth of what is. To say simply to a neighbor or friend “I heard about your loss” and “I’m sorry” gives the mourner a chance to speak about their loss if they choose, or just to know they can number you among those who will understand if you are not quite yourself. . As we are present with our own grief, so we can be present with the grief of another, “a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end.”
I believe this is the most precious gift we can give to someone who is grieving, our simple presence. Without trying to fix the person, without offering advice, without trying to talk them out of their difficult feelings, just to be a compassionate presence for them, however they are in that moment.
The message we often get from our society is to try not to show our grief to one another, to not “be a downer” to stay productive. Even as those waves wash over us we feel like we should stay “productive.” But remember Kisa Gotami walking with her grief cradled in her arms, comforted finally by not only the knowledge that grief is part of the fabric of every being’s life, but also that if we can acknowledge, share, observe grief, we will better remember that we are not alone. We grieve because we are creatures who connect, who love, and therefore, we know loss. Writes Wendell Berry: “Grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery” [p. 50]