December 13, 2017

Make the Way by Walking

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Note from CM: My work requires me to be around death and dying people every day. That means I am also with the people from whom these loved ones’ lives are being torn. From one perspective, life is a series of losses and we all find ourselves bereft. Therefore, the simple human ministry of supporting each other through seasons of loss is one of the ways we are called to relate in this world.

We do not always do this well. Despite its ubiquity, we would rather not face loss in our own lives or in the lives of others. It is uncomfortable. People of faith are no less uncomfortable, and in addition we find ourselves laden with an additional storehouse of “answers” that leads us to think we can short circuit natural processes of mourning and grieving. We can be miserable comforters.

I wrote the following to counter this tendency, to give permission for the sorrowing to sorrow. We accompany people through grief, we do not enable them to get over it.

• • •

Make the Way by Walking

My friend, I have good news for you: you don’t have to “do grief right.” In our culture, we expect people to follow a certain path in the wake of a loss. I’m here to tell you: there is no defined path. Just be yourself, keep walking, and you will make a way.

You may be introverted, drawing strength from solitude. Or, as an extrovert, you may find help being with others. Some people need to sleep while others need to stay busy. Talking about it may help or hinder. Some read everything they can find to answer the questions that haunt them. Others want to simply forget. There is no “right” way.

Furthermore, you don’t have to come up with a “reason” or “purpose” for your loss. The plain fact is, there might not be one, at least one any of us will ever know.

You are not required to smile and say things are alright. You need not put on a positive front in order to “be strong” for others. “Falling apart” is normal. Give yourself permission.

You don’t have to always try to balance your sad feelings with positive ones. Your tears honor the immense importance of your loss. If it hurts, it hurts.

On the other hand, don’t feel guilty if you have a good day or want to do something fun. Even in a season of grief, there are ups as well as downs. It’s okay to still enjoy life’s blessings, to laugh, to lighten things up.

And perhaps you are one of those people who rarely cries and is not demonstrative about your feelings. Don’t let people pressure you into feeling bad about that. If you simply prefer to deal with your loss privately and process your thoughts and feelings more stoically or analytically because that is your personality, that’s okay.

If you are a person of faith, don’t automatically imagine that God will “speak” to you about your loss or give you a vision or a word that will explain it to you.

Don’t assume that, through your loss, God is giving you a “message” to share with others. Some of us are activist types, always looking for ways to help other people. But grief is not about that. Grief is about you — your loss, your pain, your darkness. It is not “selfish” to focus on yourself. Grief means you have received a serious wound, and there is a time to tend wounds.

“God-talk” can mean well, but it can also ramp up the pressure to “do grief right” and be “heroic” at a time when you need to heal.

It’s okay to hurt, to cry, to fall apart, to withdraw, to get depressed, to be angry, to struggle within yourself and with God and others, to rage against the senselessness of it all, to have no words, and to feel like that for as long as you need. Grief doesn’t follow a timetable. Be patient with yourself, and seek the help of others who will let you be yourself.

There is no sure guide that can cut a straight path through the wilderness of grief. You will make your own way by simply walking. And you will make it.

Comments

  1. We are making it up as we go. No script. Only a blurry compass. Love and patience. Love and patience.

  2. Wise counsel full of grace. Thank you CM

  3. Lovely words.
    I especially liked the part about some people (introvert sorts) just needing solitude to sort things out. I had a brief sort of depressive episode when my last kid left home. I functioned, went to work,etc, but just felt generally sad. It was so hard to get people just to let me mourn for a bit instead of trying to cheer me up. I didn’t want cheered up, I wanted to go through it to the other side.It was a great lesson for me in how to approach the grief of others. Absolutely one size does not fit all.

    • Christiane says:

      I have found solitude to be healing. Sometimes, ‘solitude’ combined with reflection over a period of time doesn’t leave me feeling ‘lonely’. I can’t explain it. I wouldn’t even try.

      My priest told me ‘it’s a process’ (referring to grieving), so I got it that ‘time’ is an element in healing. And maybe ‘healing’ doesn’t leave us without pain so much as with a greater capacity to understand love itself.

  4. What about those of us who may or may not shed a tear and that’s it. Is that okay? If so, might that not be mentioned too? If “falling apart” is normal, the implication arises, what’s wrong with him. If there is pressure to put on a happy face, there is also pressure to put on a grief-stricken face. If it’s “okay to hurt, to cry, to fall apart, to withdraw, to get depressed, to be angry, to struggle within yourself and with God and others, to rage against the senselessness of it all.” is it okay to get up in the morning and have breakfast and get on with your life after someone else graduates or gets to go home early? If there is something to work out, I prefer to do it privately and over time. Nothing against those who find pain and loss in death, and I can see how this would be especially difficult for children. My experience and reactions are different, and I would also like a place at the table without funny looks.

    • Excellent point. Thank you.

    • Beakerj says:

      I really envy those who can grieve in this way. I am, unfortunately, a faller-aparter, & would much rather not be.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      If “falling apart” is normal, the implication arises, what’s wrong with him.

      I was on the receiving end of that at my mother’s funeral in 1975. My reaction to her death was to “numb out” for a couple months instead of getting hysterical like I was expected to; after watching cancer & chemo ravage her for six months (when the usual reaction in my family was Denial), when she finally kicked off there was nothing left.

      • Christiane says:

        sometimes I think that ‘numbness’ people get is merciful . . . like being in shock for a while

        We had a neighbor’s husband say ‘I feel sleepy’ to his daughter when he was out mowing their lawn. When she came back outside, she found her father on the ground. He was gone. Her mother was ‘in shock’ for a while. Now, it’s got bad for her. I’m doing my ‘food’ thing, and vigil praying for her to be strengthened, but she’s really in pain, and there are no words. Next week: I’m sending over meatloaf and mashed potatoes by way of my son who is her son’s best friend since they were twelve years old. In a few more weeks, I’ll send some brisket and maybe a cake. We weep with those who weep. I feed grieving people. Not that it helps, but it’s something I can do and I have to do something. God have mercy on us all.

  5. Amen. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for sharing these reflections.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    And I have heard horror stories of Christianese “Homegoing Celebrations” (not-funerals) where everyone wore a BIIIIIIIG SMIIIIILE and the preacher as much threatened the surviving next-of-kin and anyone who didn’t SMIIIIIILE.

    • Christiane says:

      oh boy, HEADLESS

      I was at a wake in New Jersey where you would have thought you were in an Irish bar at 2 in the morning. Lots of laughter, songs, remembrances (all bringing smiles, tears, and yes laughter), and people got DRUNK. There was food and people came and sat down and STAYED. Was it a ‘party’? I can’t say that, but it’s the nearest thing Catholics do to the cetebration of the life of someone who would have wanted one.

      The deceased? A wonderful man. Much beloved. One story they told was the time his wife was working and told him to have the delivery men bring the new refrigerator into the kitchen and install it properly. Well, Frank did that. There was however a problem: the brand-new kitchen counter came out like an island and the fridge was TOO BIG to get passed the end of the counter. So Frank fixed it. He got out his buzz-saw and, you guessed it, he cut off the end of the counter.
      Yeah, we laughed. Irish wakes: if you’ve never been to one, you’ve missed a very unique expression of love.

  8. Sue Tiller says:

    My 67 yr. old husband took his life last year. He had heart surgery, which led to kidney failure (he had an adverse reaction to Heparin), and besides being on dialysis for over two years, he suffered with many physical ailments. His toes got infected and due to poor blood flow, the Drs. were going to amputate them on both feet. He was a proud man and it broke my heart to watch him suffer. I remember that morning I found him dead from a gunshot wound like it was five minutes ago. My world now has been turned upside down. Christian friends surrounded me within hours and stayed in touch briefly afterward. I realize that life goes on but I rarely hear from anyone. I was told by a friend that I “needed to get out and lunch with others”, then told to read Psalm whatever because it had helped her. Since I was hyper-sensitive then, I let her know how angry I was because I did not need that kind of advice one bit!
    CM, I love this article of yours and already had it marked as a favorite. I wish every person would know these words of wisdom. Thank you for validating that there is no right way to do grief. And if this is too long to post, I’ll understand. Thank you.

    • Robert F says:

      May your world somehow, someday, be turned right-side up again.

      • Christiane says:

        AMEN.

      • Robert, thank you for these words. And thank you, Christiane.

        • Christiane says:

          God bless you, Sue.
          (BIG HUG)
          I lost a family member who was very dear to me suddenly last year.
          There are no words.
          I will pray for you that God in His mercy will bring peace to your heart.

  9. Adrienne says:

    Thank you Chaplain Mike. The “Christian world” has been so inundated with messages of victory and successful living that we have no clue how to handle dying, death and grief. We have to “hurry up” and get over it. We have so removed the Cross from our center that everything else is “out of kilter”. I just told a new widow what grief was REALLY like as she was being made to feel guilty for weeping over her husband’s death. It has only been months after 52 years of marriage. A short time later a friend of hers came to me and thanked me saying, “I don’t know what you said to her but thank you. You got through to her.” Why oh why can’t we just do what Jesus said, Weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn.”

  10. Christiane says:

    “He is risen” . . . that message two thousand years ago impacted the whole known world in a way that today is taken for granted, to our loss

    the idea that someone would arise from death and see God . . . . the hope of that was in people long before the Resurrection:
    “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19: 25 – 27)

    ‘He Is Risen’ ….. beautiful words for a wounded world