Grief is a universal emotion that almost no one escapes. It hits hard when it hits, and there is NO accepted or correct way to respond to it. There are the five stages of grief identified and acknowledged by many experts: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, this is not a linear progression nor does everyone deal with all five. If it helps to know that feeling these things is semi-normal, then that’s good, I guess. The thing is that no one can predict how they will react until it happens to them. Some never recover. It is not inaccurate to say that someone died of a broken heart because it does happen. Grief is a pain that will never go away, but it is a pain that you can learn to control most of the time. In my role as a pastor, I have seen hundreds of people reacting to death and no two were ever the same. I remember one man who laughed his way through his grief. There are those who never speak, who become so depressed that they can never return to a comfortable lifestyle. The first time I had to deal with the death of someone close didn’t come until I was in my late thirties. I embraced denial big time and tried to drown my sorrow in alcohol (a very bad idea). It was almost thirty years later before I had to face that kind of grief again. My father was dying and I was able to go to his side and be with him through his last days. My family thought that I would be the one to establish order and understanding, but when I arrived, I broke down and cried for almost two days. Happily, we had a cousin from Houston who showed up and took over. The pain from my father’s death just moved in and took up residence in my heart where it remains. I have been able to move it to a back burner so that it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my life, but it is always there.
Now, now I am at times a puddle and at times strong for my sons. My first thought was to immediately join her and that was a hard urge to suppress. She loved me more than any human on the face of the planet ever did or ever will. That loss is massive. However, my sons need me to help them and that triggers a part of me that responds to need (God put that there), and so, no matter how attractive “shuffling off this mortal coil” may seem, it is more important to stay, to do what I can to help. No one in the midst of deep and constricting grief is there to make other people happy. Others may think I am unfeeling or acting improperly, but there is no other who knows what my pain truly is. No other who knows what my physical and medical needs are (maybe my doctor) and how they affect my thoughts and feelings. Grief is one of those things that makes us human. A good friend of mine just passed a couple of weeks ago after a long illness and under hospice care but that doesn’t lessen the pain. Yes, his wife knew he was going to die, but there is no way to make his final absence anything but that—final. She hurts as much or more than I do. In his book “Tuesdays With Morrie” the author, Mitch Albom, says that death may end a life, but it never ends a relationship. He is so right. Karen was my first, my only, my last, and my wife forever. There will always be a ring on left hand because that relationship has not changed nor ever will. You do understand that I am writing about myself in my circumstances and others may see and feel differently, but this is about me. It may be more than you wanted to know, but a former parishioner wrote me yesterday and said one of my recent blogs helped her daughter who just lost her boyfriend of two years. This blog is really just to help me, but it may help others and that would be good. If there is a message here, it is to allow people to grieve in their own way and not to make judgements about how you think they ought to react. What grieving people need is support and comfort—not recommendations, suggestions, or instructions. Swahili has some things I really like and one of them is that there are two ways to say, “Sorry.” One, “samahani,” implies agency and means “please excuse what I did or said” while the other “pole” just means the person knows what pain you are suffering and understands and shares your feelings. No one ever says “samahani” about a death, but you will hear “pole” a lot. The English language is woefully inadequate when it comes to expressing many feelings. I’ve gotten lots of messages of “condolence” and “sorry for your loss” but no one, so far anyway, has had the audacity to say “I know how you feel” because NO one knows how I feel. If you want to support someone who is grieving, just be there for them. A man was here the other day, the husband of a woman who was helping, and he just stood and said nothing, but he was there—and that meant a lot. Another man drove down from Musoma just to give me a hug and then leave. It meant a lot. If you really love someone who is grieving, love them enough to let them decide what they need. You have no idea how much you give just by being.
I’ll close with this from Anne Lamott as it’s pretty right on: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”