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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Saturday, July 19, 2014

John Donne and the Rhino of Grief

The words by the 17th century poet-pastor John Donne were familiar – “No man is an island.” I first read this poem at the suggestion of my college English professor. Since then I’ve read the book by Thomas Merton with that title, and listened to a number of songs based on Donne’s words — a folk version by Joan Baez, a choral piece sung in church, even a reggae version by Dennis Brown.

On September 11, 2001, the words came back.

A few months earlier, I spotted my father-in-law’s copy of Donne’s collected works on the bookshelf and began reading in an effort to get a handle on my grief. I discovered that Donne’s wife Anne died after sixteen years of marriage when he was forty-five. Evelyn died after eighteen years when I was forty-seven, so we had a bond.

Yet there was no consolation in reading that Donne believed the death of a loved one was not a breach between two people, but an expansion, like gold that is beaten into airy thinness, because I was miserable.

The message I was receiving from society was that people expected me to grieve for a week and then celebrate that Evelyn had been part of my life. But as I packed up Evelyn’s possessions and sorted her memories, I couldn’t control the emotions that continued to surge through and sweep away everything not tied down. Usually I’m good at denying and deflecting my emotions, but this was different. Grief was a rhino that barged in and sat down in my living room.

One illuminating grace was finding two poems that Donne wrote after Anne died. “Holy Sonnet 17” expressed his gratitude that she was now in joyous heaven where it was always autumn with its warm, rich colors. Then he wrote about his despair in “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day,” feeling like he was every dead thing. This was my reality, trying to hold two different emotions that didn’t go well together. For Donne, sorrow was a deep, human response to something tragic, and it was as much a natural part of life as was love.

I thought that if my faith was strong and mature enough, then I should be able to set my emotions aside and simply accept that everything was as it should be. Yet Donne wrote that we need to examine our convictions and not idealize faith and follow it blindly, because when tragedy strikes, the grand and lofty ideals come apart in the face of stark reality and we’re left with a gritty residue.

If faith is to be real, it has to be rooted in my struggles. It is here, in the ruins of my heart and dreams, that words find meaning, here where hope finds its footing, and here where I learn how much I need the help of others.

Donne’s words gave me permission to grieve, and it was right that the rhino remained.

Although grief is intensely personal, it is also communal. Others were grieving Ev’s death, yet they came and listened to me share, knowing that they would not be able to take the grief away, but hoping that their presence would help me bear its burden.

In the Jewish tradition, a group of people, a minyan, gathers after worship and says Kaddish as a community, a prayer of remembering to praise God when you have suffered a tragedy and want to curse, with people praying for those too grief-stricken, or too angry, to pray:

Yitgadal ve’yit kadash sh’mei raba.

Exalted and hallowed be God’s greatness
In this world of Your creation.

When the day of September 11 came, I was still lost in the dust of my personal collapse and felt nothing. Cynically I thought, “Welcome to my world.” But the starkness of my reaction told me how far I had disengaged from the world. A day later, the images on television of the destruction and of people in shock and despair broke through my defenses, and I cried for the newly dead, feeling the enormity of Donne’s words that every person’s death diminishes me, and now thousands more were gone.

(You can read the full version of this essay at Antler Journal:

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