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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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Searching For Joy

Grief, Play, and Religion

Joy is really hard to muster when we’re grieving.

So is smiling. And if we let ourselves feel any joy, we then feel incredibly guilty for taking pleasure in something that our loved ones no longer can. In the beginning of grief, it’s a struggle just to get through the day.

Dante had part of it right:

There is no greater sorrow than to recall
a time of happiness in misery.      

This is what grievers deal with in the months and years after a death —  we remember how happy we had been, how good the person we loved had made us feel. And it’s absolute anguish to think about this.

But right after my wife Evelyn’s death, contrary to what Dante said, I was numb with despair and couldn’t remember ever being happy, as if every good memory had been wiped clean of emotions. Dante was writing in political exile from home. At least he could hope that he would see his wife again.

“God will forgive everything except lack of joy.”

Not being happy presents a problem according to religious authorities. Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox theologian, said, “God will forgive everything except lack of joy.” David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic monk, wrote, “Joy is the true expression of gratefulness.” Hasidic Judaism said joy was the spark that allowed people to connect to God and their community. Did their words apply to me, someone who was grieving?

Then, from the back seat of theological fuddery, comes the via negativa (the negative way), where many of the world’s religions encourage their believers to live as people who are dead, which seems to negate the joy matter: “Die to the world, that you may then begin to live with Christ.” — The Imitation of Christ. “Be in the world like a traveler, and reckon yourself as of the dead.” — Mohammad. “The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death.” — Sri Ramakrishna. “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death.” — Takeda Shingen.

In other words — Deny your grief. Deny your feelings. Be grateful for what you still have, and focus only on the world to come. Don’t hang on to pain, let it go. Be one with the universe. But we will not move through, or get over, grief until we acknowledge that it exists.

Until we face it, grief will cling to us like hot sticky oatmeal.

These religious expectations load heaviness into faith and make it all hair shirts and gruel, which was the pit where grief tossed me. I couldn’t taste whatever food I tried to eat, I was cold all the time, slept little, and didn’t care what happened to me. I felt dead. I wasn’t grateful, happy, or joyful because I had lost my wife in her forties to a heart problem we didn’t know she had. And I couldn’t let Evelyn go. 

“We are to live in the moment like children.”

Then, as if the distant corners of the physical universe actually touched, out of the blue my friend Mary handed me Sara Maitland’s book, A Joyful Theology. Maitland writes that play is characteristic of faith, and that we are to be like children who live in the moment — laughing, singing, and crying whenever and wherever they want. This caught my eye, because I used to play and joke around. But was Maitland’s play the same as Schmemann’s joy?

It had taken me a long time to find Evelyn, and it felt like the best part of my life had dissolved away. Grief’s melancholy held me tight. My dreams vanished overnight because Evelyn was the key part in all of them. I could feel nothing except sorrow.

One day I thought I might care about others again. One day I might let go of grief, get out of my dark earthen room rooted with shadows, and embrace the joy and goodness that still apparently exists. But that day was not here.

They refused to stop living just because of the threat of death.

Then I read about Jewish musicians in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II who refused to stop playing symphonies simply because death was all around them. They needed to affirm the sacredness of life, however brief it was, and however traumatic and abusive their living conditions were.

I read about the grief that the ancient Celtic people endured for centuries. Pushed off their homelands in Europe, they found refuge on the British Isles. Then the Normans and Romans came over from Europe and pushed them to the fringes of the Isles where they were vulnerable to the savage raids of Vikings coming down from the north. Yet even in the midst of continual losses and suffering, they were able to celebrate life. Every day they danced and every day they cried.

The message that grievers usually hear from people of faith is that grief is temporary, even this life is temporary, and those who died have gone on to the place of expectations, so be happy. Like society, many religions, especially those that have lost their cultural roots, have been slow to address the human suffering caused by death. They have forgotten how to speak about grief and help those who are grieving.

Grief will not lessen until we talk about it.

There are people of faith who are incredibly compassionate and have opened their hearts and listen to those who are suffering. In recent years, support groups have begun forming in churches and synagogues where people share and are strengthened. So hope exists.

I am not one to deny every pleasure in life. Nor am I blindly, optimistically happy, believing that everything will work out for the best. It doesn’t. People I dearly love have died, and they’re not coming back. I am never going to feel joyful over that.


But I can celebrate their lives. And I'm willing to hold joy in one hand, sorrow in the other, and dance.

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