A few weeks ago, was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. When I went to visit her grave and put out fresh flowers, I was immediately taken back to the events that surrounded those days of raw grief.
My sister Dinah and I were having lunch three months after our mother passed away. It was the first time just the two of us were able to be alone. Dinah is Prader-Willi. She is mentally and physically handicapped with a measurable IQ of maybe forty-five. Despite her measurable intelligence, she has the wisdom of a crone and a connection to God of a mystical saint.
Conversations with my sister are slow. She starts by asking how my children are doing. She simply names them and I know she wants to hear what is happening in their lives. Dinah is most interested in our grandsons and my dog, Jesus. She loves dogs, and if she could have one in her house she would, but she can’t, for now anyway. She lives in a single care home, taken care of by two angelic women.
On the day, we had lunch she was unusually chatty. She worked her best to tell me her stories, stringing three or four words together, and then silence. Dinah says a word or two. I ask a question. More silence. Then she ponders the next word needed to find a different way to help me understand.
Lunch was delivered to our table. Dinah is very intent on eating so there is little conversation during the meal. I kind of idly offer a few rambling stories. When the plates were taken away. She resumed her questions about the dog.
Somewhere in the little strands of conversation she told me that she had washed her hair that day.
“Do you wash your hair every day,” I asked.
She nodded an affirmative yes, as if to yes, you idiot, don’t you?
I smiled the older brother grin. “Do you blow dry and style your own hair. It looks nice.”
I was trying to make up for my previously stupid question.
“No, Joey,” she said making reference to her beloved caregiver.
“You have beautiful silver hair Dinah,” I said in truth.
She said without hesitation, “My momma’s hair.”
I wanted to cry, but I held my emotions in check.
Then she said to no one in particular except herself, “My momma’s hair.”
Silence was the best I could afford.
After a minute or two she said, “Momma no more.”
I nodded to affirm that our mother was indeed no more. We sat there in pristine silence. It was at if the entire restaurant, the outside world, and God herself had stopped breathing in communal grief waiting to hear what Dinah would say next.
Grief is the suffering of love. Grief is the complex emotion of love’s pain. And we carry this suffering of love within our minds, our bodies, and our souls for a lifetime. It takes a lifetime to process grief. Every individual experience of grief weaves another pattern of grief into all our previous experiences of grief. Every time we have a new experience of grief it pulls out all the grief of our past and then the new grief weaves itself into the cloth of the old grief, making it weigh heavier than before. That’s why our grief can be triggered by sad movies, a certain fragrance, a particular location, and sometimes random unrelated events can bring us to our knees.
The weight of grief is always present. That’s why denial and avoidance don’t work as a technique for diminishing grief’s effects on us. Unprocessed grief will eventually expose itself at the most inopportune moments as impotent anger. In other words, we get angry about the grief, angry at someone else, even angry at the dead, but no amount of anger will bring back what we’ve lost.
But our grief isn’t confined to our loss of loved ones. We grieve almost every time something in our life changes, good or bad. Because change reminds us that we are not in control.
And grief is not just an individual emotion; grief can also be something held within the body of a community.
The story of Lazarus is a perfect example (John 11:1-45). The Gospel of John was written seventy years after Jesus had died on the cross and thirty years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were grieving the loss of their beloved Temple, the place where they had gathered to connect with God. The gospel writer had written the story of Lazarus as a way of encouraging the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to come to grips with the reality that while the Temple had been destroyed, they, as a community, had been resurrected to be the new Temple of Christ. Yes, they were suffering grief from their loss but something unexpected would arise out of their pain.
Everyone in the story of Lazarus is suffering from grief. The disciples were grieving the anticipated fear of Jesus’ death. Martha, Mary, their friends, and Jesus were grieving over their loss of their beloved Lazarus.
Martha is the one who first displays her anger. “If only you had been here, Jesus, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We all play the “if only” game. If only they would have taken better care of themselves. If only they had caught the cancer sooner. If only I had paid closer attention to the signs of depression. If only… But being angry at the dead, other people, or ourselves, never brings back the dead. That’s why it’s called impotent anger—it serves no purpose. What serves a purpose is to process the grief, the reality of death, and the potential for new life.
Mary is the one who is hiding her grief and depression. Martha has to call Mary out of the house and tell her that Jesus wanted to see her. It’s when Mary sees Jesus that she too displays her anger with “only if you had been here.” But that anger quickly gives way to a wave of grief so profound that Jesus breaks down and weeps. Mary’s grief triggered Jesus’ grief. And that triggered the grief of everyone around them. The community was collectively grieving.
Then Jesus goes to the tomb and there raises Lazarus from the dead. The point of the story, however, is not that Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead. If that was the point, then Lazarus would still be alive today. The point of the story is that out of death comes life. Lazarus was buried in a cave; the symbol of the womb of God. Out of the empty womb comes new life. The story is repeated over and over in the Bible; out of the empty womb of Sarah, Israel is born; out of the empty womb of Elizabeth, John the Baptist is born; out of the empty womb of Mary, God is born; out of the empty tomb of Jesus, the Christ is born. The marriage of life and death breeds the resurrection of new life. If we deny living life, or if we deny suffering the grief of death, resurrection of new life cannot be born.
Just eight weeks ago, Pastor Gae departed from St Peter’s. Her leaving was a loss. She had been here seventeen years and built deep relationships. Grieving her loss will take time; a different length of time for every person. But honestly, some were grieving before she left—they were grieving something else—something they had lost. And that loss will take time to grieve. Whatever you are grieving that is related to Pastor Gae, is compounded by your own particular history of grief. And all the weight of that grief is being held within the body of the community. Some have acted out in the anger of “if only.” Some are hiding their grief from the community. And some are openly weeping. Someone asked me why it will take two years for St Peter’s to have a new rector. In the tradition of our old ways, we would celebrate a Mass on the first anniversary of someone’s death. It was a ritual that signified that the time of mourning was officially over. Grief, no matter what kind, takes time. And while we will never get over our loss, we must find a way forward, which takes patience.
There are two things I hope that you can hear:
1) First, as a community, we must be lovingly patient with one another’s grief. Whether we understand the other person’s grief or not, we must continue to love them and be patient with what we do not understand.
2) And, second, we must trust what Jesus the Christ taught us; that the marriage of life and death will bring the resurrection of new life. We may not be able to see it right now, or want to see it, or be ready to see it. But this is the hope of the resurrection of the Christ—death is not the end.