(I wrote this for a class assignment at San Francisco Theological Seminary, June 23, 2011.)
(The course was on Loss, Grief, and Trauma, taught by Scott Sullender.)
A personal theology of loss and grief – John Leech – June 23, 2011 – SFTS
What is the nature of loss?
What is the meaning of loss?
Why has the Creator created a universe filled with loss?
What is the meaning of pain?
What is the purpose of grief and sorrow?
How is grief related to love?
What poetic, philosophical or theological or Biblical resources
do you find helpful to understand loss and grief?
How would you respond when a parishioner asks you,
“How come sooner or later we lose everyone we love?”
What does it mean to have faith in the context of loss and grief?
Loss is the experienced absence or removal of a valued person, relationship, place, thing, value or quality. Loss tells us this world is finite, contingent, incomplete. This is not all there is. Grief tells us we care. The Creator trusts us to be a part of a contingent, incomplete, sorrowful world. As Paula Parker has pointed out to me, we experience God in times of trouble not as rescuer but as strength giver. God sees us through, not over or around. Pain is a sensation – that tells us of a wound or potential wound, to person or psyche. Pain can be felt at the wound or hurt of another. Pain, in the larger sense, is the experience of the feelings of wounded-ness or hurt. Grief is a response to that wounding or pain.
The central image of bereavement in western culture is the cross and the crucified Christ upon it – this is the image of the God who is there with us in the midst of our own pain, suffering, loss and grief, as he has experienced himself, along with us as a human being. It is a symbol that transcends and transforms its apparent meaning – the humiliating engine of death fashioned by imperial hands becomes to the believer paradoxically a sign of hope, redemption, and even power, in the face of death.
It is this human experience of Jesus – this openness to human experience by the source of all Being – that gives the Christian hope of redemption of sorrow and grief its foundation. It is not that Jesus of Nazareth went through what I am going through but that his passion – his experience of pain and grief, in its uniqueness and horror as well as in its atoning self-donation (emptying, giving, freely offering of himself to suffer what he need not), signifies that God cares.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-9)
To have faith in the context of loss and grief is to put trust in something beyond oneself, a transcendent spiritual reality that gives meaning to existence beyond sense experience or physical limitations of what we might perceive. Faith in the context of loss and grief is not a denial of the reality of loss or suffering or pain. Indeed faith makes it possible to acknowledge their reality and to ‘face facts’ with a courage that ‘reason’ does not know. (Courage is a heart-faith; a belief that strengthens in the face of the daunting.)
We lose everyone we love, sooner or later, don’t we? Do we? Perhaps – and perhaps we find them again, in some transcendent and transformative way. This is consolation, and perhaps not science based, but if we are present to Christ in the Eucharist and the dead are in Christ are we not present to each other in Christ through the Eucharist?
Ultimately the world is not a random or cruel place, as Donald Nicholl maintained even as he came to terms with his own terminal illness:
When the consultant said to me on Monday that he wouldn’t be needing to see me any more, I could just go home, and so on, there came into my mind the thought – well, now my sails are set for the journey home. And I remembered Jesus’ words as a farewell to the disciples, when he said: ‘I go to prepare a place for you’.
And that’s what going home means: you go to the place that is prepared for you. And I am also hoping that, in some measure, if you are a follower of Jesus, you can also do something which he does, that is to say, prepare a place for your loved ones who are going to follow after. Going home means also preparing a place for others to come when their time arrives.
But there is no possibility of our finding a home, we are lost, lost in the universe, unless we have the faith that the universe is not a hostile place to us, is not in the last resort hostile to us. On the contrary, the centre of the universe is a loving heart, and we are responses to that creative, loving heart. Which means that the last word is not with corruption and death and nothingness, but with love, just as the first word of creation is love. If we have that faith, we can then trust ourselves, with our bodies and our spirits, to the universe, to the centre of the universe, to the heart of the universe.
That’s not to deny, of course, that there are terrible things that happen in the universe. It’s inevitable in any act of creation, especially the act of creating life, that there will be a risk. Life means vulnerability, whether through injury or death, anguish or tragedy, and all those kind of things.
(A Testing of Hearts, ed. 2 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998) p. 235)
Grief and sorrow find their purpose in the healing of loss. One cannot move on until one has let go – until acknowledging the reality of the loss we cannot embrace the future. I hesitate to say ‘the gain’ – as if in loss there is a quid pro quo balance-sheet act.
Loss is permanent. The universe has been forever altered. What we gain – what we go forward to – is something new. What we hold out in faith is that the new possibility, the ultimate new possibility, is the redeeming of all sorrows, the healing of pain and the recovery of the grieved, through their transcendent subsumption into the reality of the divine.
For some religionists, this is annihilation or absorption into the ultimate Being; for Christians, we become more ourselves as we become closer to God. We are creatures completed in Christ. We are developing creatures that become completed, perfected, in his presence.
On the way to that perfection we are creatures who experience loss, pain, grief and sorrow. Grief is related to love as a necessary complement. To my anticipated grief, to love someone or something is to accept the possibility of its loss (or its loss of you). Love is worth the risk.
“Love in reality, as opposed to love in dreams, is a harsh and dreadful thing.”—Dostoevsky
To love someone though, truly and freely, is to accept their independence of fate; they do not exist to please you. Not ultimately. What the relation of grief and love, of sorrow and love, teach us is that we are (in God’s hands) just clay; we are not the potters.
These faith statements are made in the context of a western-European/north-American culture that insulates itself from the reality of pain, suffering, loss, and grief, through the invention of such mechanisms as “The Invisible Death” as captured and described by Philippe Ariès in The Hour of Our Death (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981): “…the denial of death is openly acknowledged as a significant trait of our culture. The tears of the bereaved have become comparable to the excretions of the deceased. Both are distasteful. Death has been banished… Mourning is a malady. The bereaved is in quarantine.” (p. 580) With piercing words, Ariès impales the comfortable numbness a desensitized, de-ritualized, ‘processing’ of death can bring: “At a memorial service, friends and family and relatives of the deceased gather together without a body to pronounce the eulogy, console the family, indulge in a little philosophical speculation, and, if the occasion warrants, perhaps say a few prayers.” (Op. cit., p. 600, italics mine)
My own experience is that detached from faith such an observance of formalities can be meaning-draining. What is the point – beyond proper disposal of the remains?
In face of such a cultural pre-disposition to desensitization, through insulation and sanitization, or the opposite error of sentimentalizing and hence trivializing the lost, the faithful person’s reverent acknowledgment of the reality of loss, and of the experience of grief, can be (however humbly) annoyingly prophetic. In my own experience both personal and pastoral, the role of the minister and the believing community in acknowledging the death and comforting the bereaved, friends and family and community members alike, enables the good news of the gospel, and our hope in Christ, to be apprehended by people at a time when they are open to it and need to hear it.
So ultimately how we experience loss and grief can be redemptive – not of oneself, and not in the Dostoevskian sense of the redemption of the sinner (Raskolnikov) through the sufferings of the loving faithful, but only as a witness or sign testifying beyond itself, to the presence of God with us, the holy one who is not aloof but alongside, who comforts and strengthens rather than protects, who is present even when we most feel his absence, who is just even in his apparent enmity.
Faith gives us hope, and hope gives us means to accept and live within and beyond an experience of loss and grief, to take the risk of love, and to continue to embrace life in its fullness.
Appendix on Resources
Among the resources that have been helpful to me are poetry – and popular songs. One of the poems, “Dry as Dust”, privately published around 1979, expresses the desert-landscape feel of the end of a love affair.
Songs of love and longing are often about romance. A better-known piece on a theme of sorrow is “Lo siento mi vida” by Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Edwards, and Gilbert Ronstadt. Although written by two touring musicians in a motel room – with the singer’s father on the telephone giving long-distance help with the Spanish – about the ending of a romance, it imparts a feeling of loss and grief that carries over beyond its immediate origins. Dolór, sadness or lament, is a key element in that popular song. Years after first hearing it I found myself singing the opening phrase of the song over and over like a mantra-prayer as I absorbed the loss of a loved one.
More conventionally and perhaps elegantly, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetic observation on the loss of a friend, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, and John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “No man is an island…” express loss and grief in apprehensible and memorable terms. Finally there are the psalms of lament in the Bible (and elsewhere, cf. Anne Weems) and the Lamentations per se, which help express feelings surrounding loss and grief, including anger and sorrow, in terms bolder than one might choose oneself in addressing the Deity.
Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) is among the spiritual resources I am beginning to consult. While it is mostly about spirituality and the experience of desert and mountain wilderness it has as one frame his lingering grieving over the anticipated and ambiguous losses he experienced surrounding his mother’s failing health and the final grief of her death.
Donald Nicholl, in A Testing of Hearts, ed. 2 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998) begins his story with journal entries made at the time of the dying and death of his father, including healing and illuminating memories. The second edition includes an appendix: the transcription of audiocassette recordings (I’ve heard them: his voice is dry as dust) and jottings of notes as he reflects on the coming of his own death. (“Tell the Californians,” a friend related, “that I am not experiencing a ‘transition’ – I am dying!”)
“Grief is an energy that works at mellowing the mind, heart, and body. An agitated or prolonged expression of grief exhausts the body to the point where rest is needed. One notices that a baby sometimes cries heavily before going to sleep. Grief takes us to the top of the hill and then lets us walk back down slowly, peacefully. It helps relieve the person who is in sorrow and leads him or her toward acceptance of the phenomenon of death, separation and love.” (Malidoma Patrice Somé, Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community (Penguin/Arkana, 1993, p. 75)