Recently I have been thinking about my Aunt Linda. When I was little, she would take me out for my birthday – it was always such a special day. We would start at McDonald’s, make our way to the movies for the latest Disney film, and then make a final stop at a toy store, where I could pick anything I wanted (within reason). She was one of the funniest people in our family and there are countless times when she had us laughing till we cried. When I was in college, my grandmother (known to us all as Nanny) passed away. My Aunt never recovered. She became increasingly bitter and angry. She started to drink heavier. It was almost as if she decided that her mom’s death would ruin her life. Eventually, she cut us all off and it has now been over 10 years since I’ve spoken with her. I miss her.
My Aunt got stuck in her grief. Somehow, grief has a way of doing that. It’s sticky.
The film “Manchester by the Sea” covers similar territory, exploring the ways that grief can take over a person. The story opens on Lee Chandler, a man called back to his hometown to care for his nephew when his brother dies. However, this is not the tragedy of the story. The tragedy is the loss that drove Lee from his hometown years before. I won’t divulge the details surrounding his loss, but trust me that it is a tragedy that leaves you devastated, and confused, and heart broken. It quickly becomes obvious that Lee has been under the shadow of this tragedy. His life has been ruined by his loss. Were this a lesser film, he would have found resolution and moved on with his life. But this isn’t that film. The reality is, sometimes our grief feels insurmountable. Sometimes, people don’t recover.
When we get stuck in grief, we hang around the outside of the grief itself, never fully entering in, but never fully moving on. When we avoid grief, we turn our back on it, but it still has ties to us. We are never free when we avoid reality. However, I know people who have walked through the hardest of circumstances, ones that seem unimaginable, and have survived, who have even come to thrive. I think of Jerry Sittser, who in one car accident lost his mother, wife, and one of his four children. He offers a nuanced image of his process of grieving in the final chapter of his book “A Grace Disguised” (Pg. 199):
Yet the grief I feel is sweet as well as bitter. I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up every morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring. Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive and living an ordinary life. Never have I felt so broken; yet never have I been so whole. Never have I been so aware of my weakness and vulnerability; yet never have I been so content and felt so strong. Never has my soul been more dead; yet never has my soul been more alive. What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become parts of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched.
I believe this is the third way to engage in grief – and the only true way to really process through loss. This way involves stepping fully into the pain and sitting with the tensions that grief seems to bring up. This is the beautiful place of tension, where we acknowledge the loss, while continuing to move through our grief.
If I am honest, this third way of grief is terrifying to me. I know that it is the only way to truly engage with grief, but I fear the experience. Recently, I went on a private retreat and I had great fear that what I needed to process with God would undo me. This is my fear almost every single time I have to unpack my heart. I envision myself in fetal position, wailing. And something about that image terrifies me. The funny thing is, my vision of walking into my pain is usually more dramatic than my actual experience. Most times, I find myself perplexed when I experience God as gentle and caring. This most recent time of retreat was no exception. God was kind and I was not undone by my pain.
We cannot escape grief. We are not alone in our grief. We are loved by a kind and caring man of sorrow, who is acquainted with grief. And meets us in our grief.
Two Ways to Enter into Your Grief
Here are a couple of questions that you may want to explore in prayer with God:
- What keeps you from grieving? Do you tend to avoid grief or get stuck in your grief?
- Is there a recent loss that you need to process? Take some time to unpack your heart with God. Share with him about what it is like to experience this loss. It can be a larger loss (the death of a close friend or family member) or a small loss (a change in life that is causing you to say goodbye to someone or something).