Good Grief
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 20, 2013


Rumi says to be as a ‘guest house’ and welcome each new arrival, even if it be a crowd of sorrows.  Invite them in, Rumi says.  Meet them at the door laughing, treat each guest honorably.  They may be clearing you out for some new delight.

Grief is not a welcome guest at most doors.  Grief is the companion of love, to be sure, but grief is a hard companion.  In her book Companion through the Darkness Stephanie Ericsson says,

Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.

Others say grief is like a vast and lonely plain where all the echoes are of only one sound.  Some say grief rises suddenly, in unexpected moments; others say it is a constant ache, ever present.  Or consider C.S. Lewis when he exclaimed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And Rumi suggests we treat each guest honorably, to welcome them, to invite them in.  No simply task, that’s for sure. 

It is better by far to share it, to speak of it, though it is wrenching to do so.  William Shakespeare noted: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”  The difficult path through grief is the only path that exists. “Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,” invite it in. 

Grief does not always appear as tears, it affects people in different ways.  Grief can make us cry uncontrollably and it can make us go numb.  Grief can make us feel guilty or depressed or fearful or angry.  Grief can cause emotional problems in our hearts and physical problems in our bodies.  Grief can put us in a state of disbelief; it can make us withdraw; it can make us feel like we are going crazy. In other words, no matter what the textbook tells you, the stages of grief do not offer a direct route. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model from her 1969 book suggests the passage is: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  It is often forgotten that Kubler-Ross also said the list is not comprehensive and can happen in any order.

“The Five Stages of Grief” by Linda Pastan

The night I lost you
someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief.
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.
And so I climbed.
Denial was first.
I sat down at breakfast
carefully setting the table
for two. I passed you the toast–
you sat there. I passed
you the paper–you hid
behind it.
Anger seemed more familiar.
I burned the toast, snatched
the paper and read the headlines myself.
But they mentioned your departure,
and so I moved on to
Bargaining. What could I exchange
for you? The silence
after storms? My typing fingers?
Before I could decide, Depression
came puffing up, a poor relation
its suitcase tied together
with string. In the suitcase
were bandages for the eyes
and bottles of sleep. I slid
all the way down the stairs
feeling nothing.
And all the time Hope
flashed on and off
in defective neon.
Hope was a signpost pointing
straight in the air.
Hope was my uncle’s middle name,
he died of it.
After a year I am still climbing,
though my feet slip
on your stone face.
The treeline
has long since disappeared;
green is a color
I have forgotten.
But now I see what I am climbing
towards: Acceptance
written in capital letters,
a special headline:
its name in lights.
I struggle on,
waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads its surf,
all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below
a fish jumps: the pulse
in your neck.
Acceptance. I finally
reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.

There are patterns, yes; but each person experiences grief in unique ways.  Some griefs are harder than others.  Smaller losses and griefs can serve as practice for the bigger ones.  The grief that comes with the death of a loved one is not the same as the grief that comes with the loss of a job or of youthful friendship or of a role in the community.  These smaller losses (if ‘smaller’ is the right term) are opportunities to meet grief and practice it for the bigger losses.

Joan Didion says “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”  Didion is the author of the 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking.  The book is an account of the year following the death of her husband.

In a 2005 radio interview, Joan Didion was asked what advice was most helpful to her during this painful time in her life. She answered: “Emily Post.” Post’s 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, offered guidance because, Didion explained, “Death was still up close, still in everybody’s house. Everybody was still expected to know how to deal with it … But at some point after that, we medicalized death. We put it in the hospital. And around the same time, we stopped being able to look it in the eye. We stopped knowing what to do or say.”

I was curious about this suggested source of help and so looked into it.  Chapter 24 of Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette begins with this:

AT no time does solemnity so possess our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.

Post does indeed talk at length about what one is to wear and what not to wear while in mourning, and how best to make use of your butler, parlor maid, and footman at such times.  But she also speaks of how: “Upon the death of an intimate acquaintance or friend you should go at once to the house, write, ‘With sympathy’ on your card and leave it at the door.”

She says one should always go the funeral of family, friend and business associate.  She writes about the usefulness of offering a bit of warm food for the bereaved in the earliest days of grief; and how brief cards and encounters are valuable and of service to those mourning.  Under the heading, Protection of the Mourning, Post says:

If you see acquaintances of yours in deepest mourning, it does not occur to you to go up to them and babble trivial topics or ask them to a dance or dinner. If you pass close to them, irresistible sympathy compels you merely to stop and press their hand and pass on.

This was written nearly a hundred years ago.  Convention and fashion have continued to evolve, but the notion that etiquette can show us how to still interact is worth noticing.  Stephanie Ericsson, whom I quoted earlier as saying grief is a tidal wave, also said “[Grief] shoves away friends, scares away so-called friends, and rewrites your address book for you.”  Perhaps the artifice of etiquette allows us the features of interaction where authenticity leaves us artlessly nothing to say.  This, I think, is Didion’s point when she claimed Emily Post as a source of help moving forward through her grief.  Treat each guest honorably, Rumi said.

Let me read to you a few paragraphs from one of the NPR This I Believe essays.  It is by Mary Cook from 2006 and is titled “The Hardest Work You Will Ever Do.”

The day my fiancé fell to his death, it started to snow, just like any November day, just like the bottom hadn’t fallen out of my world when he freefell off the roof. His body, when I found it, was lightly covered with snow. It snowed almost every day for the next four months, while I sat on the couch and watched it pile up.

One morning, I shuffled downstairs and was startled to see a snowplow clearing my driveway and the bent back of a woman shoveling my walk. I dropped to my knees and crawled through the living room and back upstairs so those good Samaritans would not see me. I was mortified. My first thought was, How will I ever repay them? I didn’t have the strength to brush my hair let alone shovel someone’s walk.

Before Jon’s death, I took pride in the fact that I rarely asked for help or favors; I could always do it myself. My identity was defined by my competence and independence. Two hours after Jon died I canceled every obligation in my life. The identity crisis that followed was devastating. Who was I if I was no longer capable and busy? How could I respect myself if all I did was sit on the couch every day and watch the snow fall?

Learning how to receive the love and support that came my way wasn’t easy. Friends cooked for me and I cried because I couldn’t even help them set the table. “I’m not usually this lazy,” I wailed. Finally my friend Kathy sat down with me and said, “Mary, cooking for you is not a big deal. I love you and I want to do it. It makes me feel good to be able to do something for you.”

Over and over, I heard similar sentiments from the people who were supporting me during those dark days. One very wise person told me, “You are not doing nothing.  Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.  Watching your willingness to be vulnerable and to fully embrace your grief is a gift. The line between giving and receiving is constantly blurred.”

I began to think about how good it made me feel to help people, how the joy was always in the giving rather than the getting, and that maybe that was true for my friends and neighbors, as well. I also came to realize that I didn’t have to repay anyone in kind, but that I could pass on their love and compassion to others who needed it. Most importantly, I could accept their help in the spirit in which it was given – with grace and humility.

“Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.” There is something in grief that makes a virtue of turning inward.  We need to turn inward at such times.  Though it is a little paradoxical, we also need to be touched by others at such times.  We need both, but the timing and the rhythm of this turning inward and reaching out is not obvious.  There is no rubric that holds always true for when to leave a friend alone and when to impose, when to grieve alone and when to let others in.  So, with no broad recognition of etiquette guiding us anymore, we are each left to figure out on our own how to navigate our grief and the grief of our friends.  It is fraught with uncertainty.

This is that uncertainty that Barbara Pescan wrote about in our reading. 

It is very hard for us middle-class Americans to not do something. It even seems irresponsible to us to not do something, even when we don’t know exactly what to do.

And herein lies the heart of what I would like to offer you all this morning, whether you look at it from the perspective of a person in grief or from the perspective of someone longing to comfort a person in grief.  Letting your grief in opens you to gratitude.  Letting other people in opens you back to life. 

I know this is a lugubrious topic, bringing us to not only consider our sadness but to also feel it this morning.  But also there is gratitude, also there is joy, also there is love.

Sorrow comes only where love abides. Out of sorrow shall come understanding and through sorrow you are joined with all that live.  These are delights that turn grief into gratitude.  This is the heart of the lesson offered by grief – that love still lasts.

Rumi says to be as a ‘guest house’ and welcome each new arrival. Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, invite them in, Rumi says.  Meet them at the door laughing, treat each guest honorably.  They may be clearing you out for some new delight.

In a world without end,
May it be so.