Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

My Friend, Grief

I have come to the belief that what makes our culture so afraid of grief is that we often have buried within us layer upon layer of losses, one piled on top of another, the way that sand piles up upon the ruins of ancient cities, gets packed down, and turns to dirt, clay, and stone. Soon, all that we see of those earlier losses and their associated grieving is the tips of the towers, the high places… yet the griefs are always there. Those losses form the foundation upon which we build new hopes… new relationships… new structures of job and passion, almost from scratch. In time, many of these become losses too, with their associated grief. Then more sand, more dirt, and more clay turns to stone, burying them.

Layer upon layer of grief and loss, upon which we continue to rebuild the foundations and structures of our lives. Like a village built upon an ancient city, we are always aware of the loss of what has come before, and yet we try not to think about it. I know that for me, it is all these past losses that are the source of the feeling of discomfort when I am faced with another person’s loss and grief. I know that what makes me want to run away from a person I see crying in a hospital room is not the power of their grief, but the power of my own grieving and loss buried within the layers of my life. Learning to be with my own grief is what keeps me with them, in that hospital room.

There are so many different kinds of losses that we grieve. We think of grieving those who have died, but I believe that many of the other losses of human life are as profound, if not more profound, even if they are more easily hidden by the layers of sand and clay. I have mourned the loss of many relationships, quite a few of which I thought would last forever at the time. I have mourned the loss of some, if thank God not all, of my dreams. I have mourned the loss of my identity numerous times, as my constructed sense of self fell short of the reality of the world I encountered. I have mourned the loss of plans, of hopes, and of visions for the future so many times it is hard to name them all. I mourned the day that my nearsighted vision made me realize I would never be an astronaut. I was twelve. I mourned the day I came home to find my apartment empty and my first wife gone. I was 23. I mourned the day I made the decision that the best thing I could do for a friend was to never speak to them again. I was 34. I mourned the day that my father died, and mourned more never knowing what he would think of the man I became.

I say mourned, but that is not true. I have also come to the realization about grief that we never cease mourning any of these losses. Grief is a chronic condition. When people talk about acceptance in grief theory they are not talking about an end to mourning, but rather acceptance that this grief is now part of the losses of our lives, integrated into the fabric of our being. I have accepted that I will never be an astronaut… and I mourn it regularly. Being with that loss has become a part of who I am, and I am with it by following every shuttle launch, regularly viewing the Hubble telescope images, and reading science fiction every night before I go to bed.

There is no end to grieving. Each time I hear someone say “you should be done with your grief by now” or “when are you going to get over this?” I just want to yell at them. We are never “done” with our grief. A poet once said that “We were made for both Joy and Woe”. It might have been better if the poet had said “We are made of both joy and woe”. The woe in our lives, the grief, the loss, the pain… this is much of who we are, who we have been, who we are becoming. To say “I am past my grief” is to claim being past myself.

I believe we are so afraid of the grieving of others because we have buried our own grief and loss deep within our own lives, hoping that there is truth to the myth of being “done” with grief. Hoping that there really is a process of making it through the nice neat little steps to the bliss of “acceptance” where we can go back to how things were before the loss. It is a myth that I know I wanted to believe, and tried to enact in my life for many years. Seeing someone else’s loss in the moment, we are viscerally reminded that we are not as “done” with our own grief as we like to think. I did not go to my father’s grave for over a decade because I thought I was “done” with that loss, done with that grief. The tears of a young girl at the loss of her mom showed me how wrong I was.

Unacknowledged, the grief over the loss of my father affected almost everything I did in my life. I was unaware how, in that grief, I tried to re-enact my parent’s relationship with someone who rightly realized that I did not see her as an authentic human being, just a part in this play I was unconsciously enacting. I did not see how the beliefs I held about politics and life were not something that came from my values and principles, but from a need to validate the beliefs and opinions of my father as a testimony to his life.

I did not begin to see these things until I was forced to face my grief, first over the loss of my father, and then through that lens to face how much of human life is made up of our losses and our grieving. It was not until I realized what a half-empty shell of a person I would be were it not for my grief and losses. It was not until I realized that most of the deep lessons I had learned about myself, about the world around me, and about my fellow human beings came not from my times of success and joy, but the times of loss, defeat, and death.

It is more than what “I” have learned, for without such grief and loss there is no “I”. I remember a science fiction series I once read, one that I did not understand until just this past year. I remember reading that series as one of the most depressing times in my life, and yet I could not put the series down.

In the series, the main character suffers a never ending series of losses. He (Nicholas Seafort) encounters a never-ending series of catastrophes in his life. I found myself reading thinking ‘nothing worse could possibly happen to him’, and then it does. Again I think, ‘nothing worse could possibly happen to him’ and then it does. Again and again for about six books, the main character suffers loss after loss, grief after grief. Even when something good seems to happen, you know it is just foreshadowing the loss that is to come.

Two things have puzzled me about this series of books over the years. The first was why, for my own sanity, I could not just quit reading. I tried to quit, I really did. My significant other at the time tried to hide the books from me as a form of intervention. Friends would come by to try and cheer me up, to ask what was wrong, and would not believe it was just a science fiction series (because it wasn’t).

The second thing that has puzzled me was why, through out all this tragedy I kept feeling a sense of hope, a sense of the future of the character of Nicholas Seafort. You think that if anyone suffered a tenth of the loss that Seafort did, they would just give up living. What was it about this character that made him so appealing to me? Why did I sense some hope, and even some connection with him… some aspiration to be like him? Why did the author of this amazingly depressing series of books put the word “Hope” in every title?

I realize now these two questions are really one, and the answer to both is that Nicholas Seafort had learned to make friends with his grief and loss. He never tried to “get over” his grief, he simply made those experiences a part of who he was. He never tried to forget his losses, he just allowed them to become the foundation of what he rebuilt. Nicholas Seafort never sought to find sand, dirt, and clay to bury his griefs and losses… and because of it each loss became a gift, a lesson, and a friend. A constant and faithful companion on his journey through what (for science fiction) is an amazing life.

I know it’s a fictional character… but fiction has long been a medium for seeing what is at times hard to see in real life. Nicholas Seafort did not need to excavate his grief and loss, because he never buried it. He was not afraid of being with the grief and loss of others, because he lived with his own every day. He built the structures of his life not above buried ruins, but among them. And I admired him for it. What made me feel so depressed through the months of reading that series was not his losses… but mine.

Through this year as a hospice chaplain, I have been learning to not only excavate some of my own buried griefs and losses, but to live among the ones I currently have. I have found the space to be with grieving families not in clinical detachment, but by letting the friend of my own grief guide me. I am not claiming to do this well, and I still struggle every day with the desire to bury my grief (be they old or more recent) and begin again on fresh ground. I struggle with the resistance toward forming new relationships with patients because of my fear of more losses… and my friend grief pats me on my shoulder, and reminds me that the losses will come no matter what I do. He reminds me that he will be there with me, that he will help me to understand the meanings of those losses in my life, and he will help me to use what remains from those losses to build new structures, new plans, new relationships, and new dreams… ones that build upon instead of erase my past.

It is good to have a friend.

Yours in Faith,


One Thought on “My Friend, Grief

  1. Thanks for your insights, as a military chaplain I too all too often grapple with grief and how to help people through it – especially when the loss is due to an IED in Afghanistan on the other side of the world!

    Chaplain Ian Whitley

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