Yesterday my granddaughter, Hannah Jean Hildreth, graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA
She’s a dancer…she waltzed across stage with a big grin. At least it appeared to me that she was dancing. She was always dancing as she grew up. I watched her take her first steps and I’ve been watching as she steps through the years of her life.
Watching our children and grandchildren and step children in such moments is such a deep blessing that it can feel more like sadness than joy. I think of it as the intersection of joy and sadness – the place where they are indistinguishable.
The joy is on the surface of life. The sense of sadness sinks into the spirit, nourishing the soul – the source of our compassion, caring and simple acts of kindness.
Age has something to do with it, too. As we age we develop deeper feelings of appreciation for life, for loved ones, for memories. I suppose one could say that it’s one of the benefits of being older. I’ll stop just an inch and a half short of that line.
No matter what our age, we’ve experienced many moments of joy and sorrow…and the joy and sorrow are ‘woven fine,’ as the poet says…we’ve accumulated so many feelings and of such variety that they ignite something that sets the mind soaring into high places.
Some of the pain we call grief can feel like a blessing. Strange, isn’t it.
There’s a line in Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, about the journey through life, where he says, “…here I carry them, men and women I carry them, my old delicious burdens,”
In William Blake’s words:
“Man was made for joy and woe
Then when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul to bind.”
Shakespeare has Juliet call parting a ‘sweet sadness.’ The words sadness and sweet don’t seem to go together, but on some level we know they do. Not always, of course. But there are moments when sadness feels sweet.
To be fully alive is to have the capacity for both joy and woe…and not only your own sense of personal joy, but to feel the joy of others…and the woe of others…
Which we do, especially with those closest to us…our spouse or partner…parents and children and grandchildren.
Grief is our emotional response to loss. Our losses come in a wide variety of colors; like the colors of the rainbow. They blend together, forming a pattern, like the rainbow. And there’s a certain kind of beauty in the feelings surrounding loss.
Grief is paradoxical. We grieve because we love. Without love there is no grief.
A certain suffering is built into life, and part of the suffering we endure is the grief that is visited on us.
Grief comes as a result of change. Since we’re always changing – always aging – grief is built in to our lives; it is central to our lives. It’s the essence of this thing we call soul. That, certainly, is what the Jewish-Christian paradigm is about … at its essence.
May Sarton says it in a poem:
There are some griefs so loud
They could bring down the sky,
And there are griefs so still
None knows how deep they lie,
Endured, never expended.
There are old griefs so proud
They never speak a word
They never can be mended
And these nourish the will
And keep it iron-hard.
The loudest griefs I’ve witnessed, in my life and in my work are griefs in response to the loss of a child – not only the loss of a young child, but the grief a parent must endure when they lose a son or daughter of any age.
That grief is ‘so loud it could bring down the sky.’ It is so loud that it can’t be spoken. There are no words that can tell that story – all the words are inadequate. Each of those stories is unique, to say the least.
That’s why you must never say, “I know how you feel.” Even a parent who has lost a child cannot say to another parent who has lost a child, “I know how you feel.”
You don’t know. But you can express your compassion in a variety of ways – all of which boil down to the being present.
That’s my understanding of May Sarton’s line: “There are some griefs so loud they could bring down the sky.”
Those, she says, are the griefs must simply be ‘endured, never expended.’
The loudest griefs sink into the depths of the human spirit, and they are never expended, never resolved, never ended. There’s not such thing as closure for those griefs.
I learned about this kind of grief very early in my life when I witnessed it in my mother. Every year, on what we used to call Decoration Day, we brought flowers to the grave of my sister…a sister I never met, because she died before her first birthday, before I was born.
On Decoration Day, my mother would stand at the gravem say a prayer, and weep. Year after year she did that. And I wondered about it. How could a sadness last that long? If it was so sad, why come here at all – why not avoid it? (Some may ask that question about a sermon on grief! Why talk about it…it only makes me sad.)
Even as a little kid I thought about those questions. At first it was confusing, but little by little I came to understand.
She grieved because she loved, and because she loved deeply, she grieved deeply.
We value love – it’s the essence of our humanity. Without love there would be no grief. In this sense, then, grief is good. Good grief!
I was talking with a friend the other day and the subject of my sermon came up, and he asked me some questions about it, providing an opening for me to ask about the ways he has dealt with the tragic death of an adult child some years ago.
The first thing he said was: “We didn’t breathe for two years.”
Thinking out loud, I recited the famous line from the book of Genesis: “And God picked up some clay from the earth and formed it into a man, and God breathed into the man the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (That’s my paraphrased version of the passage.)
The King James version says, ‘man became a living soul.’ Other translations say, “…and man became a living being.”
In this case I prefer King James: man became a living soul. I can’t describe the word soul, but it has something to do with the source of our suffering…the part of us that cares about life, about our own life and that of others, and of life on the planet, and all the ways that life in all its forms suffers.
“We didn’t breathe for two years” is a way of saying that the soul was removed from our lives for two years…the spirit had taken flight, like a bird.
I asked, “What happened at the end of two years?” He said, “Our first grandchild was born…and it was as if we came back to life.”
“i who had died am alive again today…” e e cummings
“And man became a living soul…again!”
Let’s acknowledge that some kinds grief, some levels of deep sadness, some suffering is a slippery slope into something that looks like grief, sounds like grief, and feels like grief, but it’s not good grief, at least not the kind of grief I have in mind when I talk about ‘good grief.’
The ‘slippery slope’ kind of grief is deep depression. Or, more precisely, it’s clinical depression, which is a horse of a different color. It’s a dark horse called hopeless with a rider called helpless on a trail called worthless…it’s no-where, no-thing.
(Mary Kennedy, estranged wife of Robert Kennedy Jr., had that kind of depression. I met her on a few occasions – she was interested in poetry…which we talked about; she was a very gentle woman; her suicide this week was a shock.)
Depression in response to a loss is a natural – it’s a normal aspect of ‘good grief.’ It’s not only normal and natural, it’s necessary, to one degree or another, but there’s a limit to the degree of depression that attends ‘good grief.’
Here in this sanctuary we light candles and share the loss of a loved one, or the separation from a loved one, or a divorce. We share the sadness over the loss of a beloved pet, or the loss of a job, or the loss of health. Or a loss associated with moving or becoming an ‘empty nester,’ or retiring.
Now we’re sharing grief in response to the loss of staff members: Perry, Jamie and Lily.
That sharing is a way of coping with feelings associated with those losses. The losses are universal, but we cope in our own unique way.
If we’re fortunate, we develop healthy coping skills, or good grief.
Good grief allows us to mourn a loss without letting go of our responsibilities – without damaging our health or our relationships, or jeopardizing our family or job.
Grief isn’t good in the sense of being glad to have it; but good grief is necessary.
Bad grief, on the other hand, is destructive grief; it’s the kind of grief that interferes with life – it interferes with the relationships closest to home, hurting people you love.
Bad grief is grief that gets stuck in one of the stages or phases of mourning – like guilt, or anger, which are connected to depression.
Someone said, “Depression is anger turned inward.” Guilt is anger at oneself.
Good grief resolves anger. Good grief alleviates guilt.
Good grief doesn’t slide down the slippery slope into substance abuse…including alcohol, drugs and food.
Good grief, while unique to each individual, has some common elements.
No doubt you know about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work around death and dying. She dealt with hundreds of terminally ill patients and came up with several common elements that she called ‘stages of grief.’
The terminal patient went through these stages in what she called preparatory grief; family members went through the same stages in what she called anticipatory grief.
Kubler-Ross’s stages included denial, anger, bargaining, depression (guilt) and acceptance.
Though she herself warned against it, unfortunately her paradigm is often taken too literally, as though it’s a formula to follow, step by step, from denial to guilt, then on to anger and bargaining, which leads to acceptance.
Critics say that her theory of ‘stages of grief’ tends to prescribe instead of describe grief.
This misunderstanding suggests that those who don’t experience these stages are not grieving in a healthy way – the stages, then, are seen as good grief; and if you don’t go through the stages it’s bad grief.
The stages can become like religious dogma – you are either a true believer or a heretic.
That’s too bad.
We humans have a built-in resiliency. We survive, we endure, as May Sarton put it; we bounce back.
Kübler-Ross wrote about what she observed: that the stages of grieving include denial, anger, bargaining, guilt or depression, and acceptance. But they are not meant to be chronological. She also pointed out that it is possible to get stuck in one or more of these stages, or aspects of grief.
Our reactions or responses to the variety of losses we experience in the course of a lifetime are as unique as each of us is unique.
The Biblical story of Job provides a model similar to what Kubler-Ross describes. You recall that when Job lost loved ones and worldly possessions he responded, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” That’s where the writer of the book of James in the Bible got the idiom, ‘the patience of Job.’
It wasn’t really patience – it was denial; fast-forwarding to acceptance without entering necessary grieving.
But in the story, or poem, Job’s patience runs out when his own health is compromised. Then he breaks through his denial and curses his life, curses the day he was born and welcomes death.
As he grieves, his friends come to him and sit quietly with him for a week, which is where the idea of ‘sitting shiva’ comes from the Job story…the Hebrew word shiva means seven.
In the story, his friends come and sit quietly for seven days, until one asks Job’s permission to speak.
His friend suggest to Job that he, Job, must have done something wrong and he should confess what he did, because, he says, God is a just God.
In fact, he goes a giant step further, maintaining that God is not only just, but merciful, so Job actually deserved worse punishment.
That was the last straw. Job blew his top and demanded that his so-called friends take a hike! Then he cursed the day he was born and his grief poured out, breaking his denial, expressing his anger and depression…
Finally a voice came out of that whirlwind and remind Job that he, Job, is not in charge of the universe and he has to accept what life delivers and stop complaining about it, stop saying, ‘why me?!’
Once Job reached what we would call the stage of acceptance, the story says, he got everything back, double!
The story of Job – the poem – is of course about us; each and every one of us.
Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, in his book Peace of Mind, says, “The discoveries of psychiatry–of how essential it is to express, rather than to repress grief, to talk about one’s loss with friends and companions, to move step by step from inactivity to activity again–remind us that the ancient teachers of Judaism often had intuitive wisdom about human nature and its needs which our more sophisticated and liberal age has forgotten. Traditional Judaism, as a matter of fact, had the wisdom to devise almost all of the procedures for health-minded grief which the contemporary psychologist counsels, although Judaism naturally did not possess the tools for scientific experiment and systematic study.”
Jewish tradition describes five successive periods of mourning – not unlike Kubler-Ross’s stages.
Going through these periods provides a gradual release from deep mourning.
Arthur Schopenhauer offered an interesting paradigm which is similar to the Kubler-Ross paradigm for grief. He said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
Good grief reaches into the depths, touching our inner strength – a resilience, that allows us to deal with our losses and move on with life.
Good grief is helped by a memorial service. Good grief is helped by a living will. Those are topics for further discussion.
We’ll close with a well-worn poem by John Masefield, who wrote it when he was but 25 years old.
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; and all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life. To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; and all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
How deep can depression go?
Mary Kennedy –
How deep can remorse go? Steve Clapp
How deep can regret go? Robert Spitzer – psychiatrist who apologized to the gay community (in yesterday’s NY Time) for promoting therapy as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality…
The World Health Organization released a report on Thursday calling such therapy, “…a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people.”
Our ‘peace of mind’ is a sense of equilibrium – balance – that allows us to stand on our own feet and ‘walk through the storms with your head held high’ as the song says.