Grieving

Brian McLaren: Sorrow Can Make Us Better, Not Bitter

When tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre occur, we all share certain questions.

Why did this happen? How could this happen? Should anyone be blamed? Should someone be punished?

Often these questions lead us to seek a kind of rational explanation - so that the irrational can be folded into our sense of order in the universe. Often these questions send us on a search for someone to blame - a person, a group, the devil, even God.

I have found that our [...]

Epistles of Grief

Thank you for publishing Dan Charles’ hymn to the life of Nelson Good (“Everything He Touched Turned to Community,” December 2005). I’m one of those people who benefited from the “expanding circles” of Nelson’s life. I never met the man, but I loved someone who loved him, and thus was privileged to read Betty Good’s e-mail epistles about life in the midst of dying and grief. One was aptly titled “Abrupt Grace.” It offered deep wisdom about living and leaving a good life.

Linda Monk
Mount Vernon, Virginia

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Shepherds in the Dark Night

Soon after Sept.

Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, my 14-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident. In that moment, the global grief I had been witnessing at a distance became intensely personal for me. I shared the pain of every mother everywhere—American, Afghani, Iraqi—as she struggled to bear the unbearable.

When my daughter died, she was at the beginning of her blossoming, filled with indignation against injustice, hunger for justice, and the early flames of spiritual love. I had believed that Jenny would grow up to consciously help alleviate the suffering in this world. The loss of such potential, coupled with the primal agony of missing her, threatened to destroy me.

But there was another reality just beyond the edges of my anguish. A palpable sense of holiness began to pervade the emptiness carved by my shattering. As my family and community rallied to support me in those first hours and days of my loss, filling the air with their prayers, tears, and singing, I noticed a radiance wash over my heart and the hearts of my circle of support. God was with us. And Jenny was with God. The exaltation accompanying this phenomenon confused me. The most terrible thing imaginable had happened and, while my suffering was acute, I was also being soothed and lifted by this ineffable holy joy.

For a year or more, all I could do was tentatively face the fire of my feelings, offering quiet prayers for peace on the planet and in the hearts of all who were grieving. I sat amid the wreckage of my own heart, allowing the broken fragments to re-form according to the inscrutable timetable of the Divine, relinquishing any last illusions that I had control of anything in this life.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2004
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Grieving as Sacred Space

Alzbeta / Shutterstock
Alzbeta / Shutterstock

editor's note: This article was first published in the January-Febuary 2002 issue, only months after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

 

"They sat there on the ground beside him for seven days and seven nights. To Job they never spoke a word, so sad a sight he made." —Job 2:13

IN RECENT STUDIES of initiation rites, which seem to have been strategic for human survival in most of human history, I have discovered from Victor Turner the concept of "liminal space." He says that it is very hard to come by in the modern and now post-modern world. We are now too strategic, functional, and hurried to easily seek what the ancients sought above all else. Only pain is now strong enough to lead us into this unique place "where all significant transformation happens."

I suspect America is in a unique liminal space [post-Sept. 11]. Our attitudes are numbed, absolute, and strange. The old constituencies are unpredictable and misshapen. There is something new afoot, not only politically but also somehow archetypally and on the level of the psyche and soul. We are tipping on the balance, and usually God is an opportunist in such situations—waiting at the bottom of the slide.

Let me first explain what I mean by liminal or sacred space (I will use the terms almost interchangeably). "Limina" is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space, therefore, is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the "tried and true" but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun. Think of Israel in the desert, Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the belly, the three Marys tending the tomb.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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We All Have to Die

Cheryl Grossman and her husband used to laugh together about all the "rigmarole" that most funeral services involved. So when he died suddenly in October 1997, Cheryl knew that he would want the arrangements to be simple. Grossman, with a friend to support her, went to a funeral home to arrange a direct cremation. The funeral director kept "upselling"—pressing her to consider more expensive alternatives.

"Had I not had a friend who went with me, and had I not had a firm resolve, I probably would have signed anything," she says. "To be manipulated in that way at that time was one of the most obscene things I’d ever experienced."

Cheryl Grossman’s funeral home encounter is a common one. Not so common is how she took her experience to church—and how her church embraced it. Cheryl’s Catholic parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, has offered a diverse array of practical and pastoral supports to the grieving for some time. Last year Grossman and two other parishioners helped create a death and funeral resource booklet that gathers information on all applicable parish ministries and other area resources in a convenient portable form. It includes specific information on affordable funeral options, planning sheets, and step-by-step advice for those dealing with a death in the family (see "Reclaiming Our Rites," p. 33).

Such a booklet is a simple, straightforward thing, but not every church would know how to welcome it. Most American Christians, including clergy, are almost as comfortable talking about the practical, concrete details of funerals as they are talking about the practical, concrete details of sex. In other words, the topic doesn’t come up much. And unlike sex, funeral planning isn’t a hot topic outside of church either.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Reclaiming Our Rites

As someone who’s had several deaths in my family, I can testify that prayers and casseroles are both helpful to the grieving process. But they’re not the only things that church people have to offer.

Members and pastors of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Austin, Texas, provide the bereaved with babysitting, transportation help, meals, liturgy planning, accompaniment to the funeral home, a post-funeral reception, bereavement groups, and counseling. Last year parishioners Carole Hawkins, Bob Leidlein, and Cheryl Grossman put together a resource booklet (incorporating materials from the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society) after having shared their "funeral stories" with one another. They credit Father Oliver Johnson for actively encouraging parishioners to draw from their experiences and create ministries for the whole community.

Grossman is involved in plans for a diocesan-wide conference on the pastoral response to end-of-life issues. "This opens the forum to a large geographic area and a diverse community," she explains. "Folks without many financial or education resources will have access to a wide variety of experience and information."

Smaller churches can also offer help. An Episcopal church in Kansas included information about funeral planning in a Lenten study series on death and dying. Five Nazarene churches in a community came together to negotiate a special rate for their members with a local funeral home. An adult Sunday school class might take on death and funerals. Beyond the News: Facing Death, a 34-minute video and print study guide produced by Mennonite Media might be a useful resource (1-800-999-3534; www.thirdway.com), or check with your denomination for other source material.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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To Triumph Over Despair

It is often assumed that younger people have no respect for their elders and even less reverence for history. While people in their 20s now may be as suspicious of institutions as their baby boomer counterparts were 25 years ago, my experience has been that there is in fact a healthy respect for individuals who have lived more than we, particularly those who experienced the hardships of depression and war.

We know that the particular social and economic challenges of our times are different, but the basic emotional fortitude needed to survive is not. We are familiar with despair, and so we are grateful for generations that have shown us how to move through life gracefully, how to live for the good of future generations, how to persevere in the face of trouble, and how to live and die with dignity.

In my congregation of mostly younger people, we tend to focus more on the spiritual challenges of this life than the rewards of heaven. Promises of eternal bliss fall on deaf ears for those who think they have 50 or 60 years of misery until then. Nevertheless, we are not as disinterested in the hereafter as one might assume. In my senior year of college, no fewer than five classmates lost a parent. AIDS has been a reality as long as we've been adults, and cancer rates for younger people appear to be rising. Death is no stranger to us, even if few of us expect to meet it any time soon.

WHEN PEOPLE BEGIN TO share stories of death, we of course remember grandparents, uncles, and friends who lived full and productive lives. But there is another group of stories that inevitably come out—the stories of those whose deaths were untimely and ungraceful: the high school friend who ate so little that her heart gave out; the buddy who drank so much that his liver failed; the college classmate who thought it better to swallow a cabinet full of pills than to face the next day.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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