Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Landscape of Grief

My friend John, who was struggling with the death of his wife, said grief had become the landscape of his religion.

He’s right. With the death of a loved one, the landscape around us completely changes. Even the sunlight looks different when we walk outside. It seems muted, and the colors of the world have shifted to darker tones.

The images that bring us strength and hope have also changed.

For example, the image of God as King (or Queen or Sovereign) has far less importance for us right now than God the Comforter or God the Companion. The words we use also change, words that seem foreign to those who have not grieved. “Compassion” has become more important than “sympathy” or “empathy.”

Grief has plopped us down in a land of suffering and despair, and either we find out how God is present in this place, or we risk losing our faith. 

One of the aspects of this new land is that most of the things we used to get so upset about every day no longer seem important, and we set them aside. But talk to us of matters of life and death — food, shelter, love — and you have our attention.

It is not our intention to stay in this wild land, but to journey across it to a new place and a new life that awaits our arrival. We hike at a pace that allows us to make the transition from what has been to what will be.

As we travel, we change. Nine years along, I am more a realist than the optimist I used to be. I don’t know if I will ever trust the world as I did before. I will have to get back to you later on this.

As we deal with the shock and trauma of the death of a loved one, as we travel across the barren land we find ourselves in, what enables us to deal constructively with grief is a community of support.

A century ago, everyone understood what grievers went through because in the time before the advances of modern medicine, every family had people die because of common events like childbirth or stepping on a rusty nail. They knew what to say and do for those who were grieving. That’s not the case today. Chances are there aren’t many people who understand grief in whatever group you regard as your community.

It’s not important that everyone understand what you’re going through.

If you have people who are willing to listen on a regular basis, count yourself blessed. As you meet others who are grieving, you will build a new community of support, people who “get” grief, who understand what it feels like and how it moves.

In community, we feel God’s love. In community, God is made flesh. In community, “compassion” becomes more than a word. With others offering support, our hearts do not become entombed in despair but have reasons to feel hope for the future.

Even though grief has rearranged the landscape and cracked some of its supporting pillars, I still feel attached to the world because there is something intrinsically good and noble about it. I feel the presence of hope when I’m in my community, and I feel it when I walk alone through the forest, listening to the voices of the creatures of Creation.

My prayer for all who have lost loved ones is that their families and friends will check in on them throughout the first year, offering opportunities to be together and share, even if they don’t know what to say.

There will be times when you need to step away from people for a few hours. In a time when most people don’t know what you need, you need to take care of yourself. In this difficult time, you can say “No” to offers of help if you aren’t ready for what is being offered.

Go where you feel renewed and refreshed.

Go where you can breathe deeply again, where you can reflect and be quiet, whether this be in scripture, prayer, the seashore or mountains, or in novels. There is nothing that you should be doing or thinking with grief. 

There are no “shoulds.”

You know what you want to do in order to cope. You just need the courage to step forward in faith and do it.

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