I am averse to sadness in all its forms.
Though I believe this aversion derives partly from nurture, I must own at least a full two-thirds as a product of nature – a nature inescapably shaped by the time and place in which I live. Even having the option of avoiding sadness betrays my status as a child of affluence, with the bulk of my forebears likely being well familiar with such a lot from childhood.
Of all the wedges on the pie chart of sadness however, surely one registers with greater weight than any passing disappointment or discouragement. You may know it as grief: an overwhelming plummet into sorrow, usually reaching its crescendo at the death of a loved one. This particular brand of sadness most people spend their lives trying to avoid.
Why? I think there are a couple of reasons:
We are a people who naturally play to our strengths. We index them on cover letters, we introduce them with our names – and there is no weapon more devastating to such hubris than a poignant encounter with grief. When all the bluster of springtime confidence lies forgotten and we must face that most humbling of experiences: the emptying.
There is no helplessness like the kind one feels in the wake of grief; our own or another’s. When all the trusty cliches strapped to our person feel suddenly – insufficient. Part of the reason for this is that so few are familiar with the language of lament – as evidenced in the nervous flurry of non-sequiturs which often follow a friend’s loss.
To an extent, I get it. What good can we do for a wound with no immediate cure? What help can we offer a heart that refuses to be comforted? Who doesn’t feel awkward conversing in an unfamiliar language? For many of us, it’s just easier to move on.
Grief forces us into a stare-down with the fatal flaw in the human machine. And as it turns out, there isn’t just one. A slow cancer, a botched robbery, a neurological decay, an oncoming pickup truck. On our better days, we might muster up a string of convincing bluffs: “Let’s beat cancer! Let’s beat alzheimers! Let’s beat poverty!” Noble endeavors all – and yet the decibel of the chanted slogans betray another emotion: fear.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” – C.S Lewis, A Grief Observed
Listlessness. Dread. Isolation. To linger in griefs shadow is to know fragility in a unique and devastating way.
The Reminder of Rot:
The inconvenient tears that flow in the wake of a loved one’s death serve to remind us of a inconvenient truth (and it isn’t that the polar ice caps are melting.) And the truth is that beneath the bright, breezy veneer of life lurks an active and undeniable rot. We see it in our mirrors, we see it in the world, we see it finally in all it’s unveiled hideousness at the moment of interment.
There is nothing like grief to remind us that, contra 90’s sensation Alanis Morset, everything just isn’t fine, fine, fine.
If you live in an old house, and you know what it is to live with a deficit of carpenter’s savvy, it might at first seem easier to drown out the creaks and groans with AC/DC, or the comforting clatter of your late aunt’s blue willow china. But to ignore a problem is not a solution. And when an earthquake or hurricane hits, you’ll wish you’d paid attention to the symptoms. You following me? Grief is the groan we can’t ignore; and oh, we so want to ignore it.
But – and I write this to myself – should we? Or is grief a taste one can somehow grow accustomed to? Is it a sting that may, with time, even kindle something like anticipation? – like the slightly bent tragedian, who manages to salvage a kind of poetic beauty from the sight of blood and tears?
The answer, you’ll be happy to hear, is complicated.
I believe it begins not with the normalization of aberration, but rather, in the acknowledgement of reality as we find it in this world. It is this acknowledgement – this leaning into the gale, as it were, which must preclude any move forward. There’s no sense trying to pretend that death is an illusion, or that it improves the character of those left behind, or that it’s somehow something to be celebrated. If we spend all our time trying to powder over the grimness of death, we’ll be no use to anyone when it finally comes in all his naked ferocity.
Christianity is often accused of its disconnection to reality. That its adherents so surround themselves with the mellowing smoke of the afterlife, that they grow dull to the very real suffering around them. And let’s face it — in some cases, this is a valid critique .
But Christians in the main, at least historically, have actually demonstrated just the opposite. We could think of Lewis, whose courage led him to write an honest, if somewhat bleak, account of his own journey through grief. We could speak of Corrie Ten Boom, who was enabled to forgive the guard who killed her sister. We could read of John Owen, who endured the death of two wives and twelve children to write books of theology which have gone to encourage countless others. I could bring up many more.
These Christians weren’t superheros, immune to grief (we sorrow. . . 1 Thess. 4:13); rather, they had been inoculated against the prevailing despair that often follows it (. . . but not as those without hope). It is Christians who, like our Christ, may plunge into grief without terror; tethered as He was to incorruptibility, and tethered as we are to the train of His resurrection.
You see hope, rightly understood, doesn’t anesthetize – it motivates; even if that motivation amounts to sitting very still and quiet with a mother who has just lost her child. Remember Lewis, dreading the hours alone, yet equally dreading the hours peppered with sentiments of the well-intentioned but careless.
In conclusion, if the God-Man we serve was a man of sorrows, one “acquainted with grief” — shouldn’t we be too?