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November 25, 2012: Working Through Loss and Change: Grief

I decided to take on the topics of grief and loss at this time because I am always acutely aware, during the holiday season, of those in our communities who are in the midst of pain and struggle. Being in those “desert places” is hard at any time, but can be especially so when everyone around you seems to be in the holiday spirit. For this reason, many religious communities have adopted a practice of offering what is called a “Blue Christmas Service,” a service specifically designed for those for whom the holidays are a struggle in any given year, perhaps due to grief or loss, or for any number of personal reasons. So coping with grief and loss is the theme of this first in a two part sermon series. Next week, we will shift to the theme of change in general, and the ways that we as individuals or communities can allow change to become creative and transforming.

But first, grief, which always implies change, because we grieve for what has been lost. We tend to use that word in relation to the death of a loved one, but I mean it today in a broader way. Because I think there are losses all along the way which, while not always involving the death of a significant other, can still be devastating, and still result in full fledged grieving. These can include things like job loss, or loss of a significant relationship for reasons other than death. Or it might be the loss of health or of ability or of financial security, or the death of a dream. Really grief occurs anytime we lose something that we cherished, even if we didn’t know we cherished it before we lost it.

And I think that Ann Lamott is right. It really is only grieving that heals grief. Healing comes from experiencing the feelings in a raw and direct way. Reading about the feelings, analyzing them, talking about them, all can be helpful, but they are no substitute for just plain feeling them. And yet, that is the very thing that our society is most uncomfortable with. And so we do perpetuate the great palace lie, that grief should be gotten over as quickly and as privately as possible. We wish people would “move it along” or “get over it,” largely, I think, because it makes us anxious not to be able to fix it. And certainly it is possible to get stuck in grief. I have a friend whose divorce now ten years ago remains the only subject she wants to talk about. And there does come a time when a certain kind of letting go and moving on is important. But the very phrase “let go” implies that you do, first, hold it. And you cannot “move on” unless you have first fully “been there.” So that’s the kind of avoidance I am talking about today- avoiding having ever had the full experience of the loss in the first place.

We do it in so many ways, not the least of which is religion’s attempt to gloss over the magnitude of loss that comes from death, by jumping way too quickly to clichés about an afterlife. Now, I personally happen to believe in some kind of immortality of the soul, but I think that to go there too quickly, and as a way to avoid the devastation of very real loss is hollow and ineffective, and especially unhelpful, frankly, when brought up by others. We do ourselves no favors, in the long run, by minimizing the all consuming sadness of grief. This is why I have come to respect WH Auden’s poem about grief, entitled “Funeral Blues.”

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. 
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead, 
Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public doves, 
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song, 
I thought that love would last forever: ‘I was wrong’

The stars are not wanted now, put out every one; 
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; 
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. 
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Wow. I love that poem, because it reminds me of a time in one of my own losses, a time when everything I thought I could count on turned out to be a house of cards, and I came across this poem, and it gave me permission to quit resisting the enormity of the loss, to drop my arms and just let it be. You see, I had been trying to pretty it up for myself, to minimize what had happened. This poem finally freed me to stop all that. And it was, of course, only after I finally stopped trying to outrun that avalanche that there eventually came any hope of healing and rebuilding.

I have come to think of grief as an ocean that must be crossed. We can stand on the beach, scanning left and right, up and down, looking for any alternate way around. But finally, we must plunge in and start swimming. Some days we are swimming strongly, and the sea is relatively calm, and we think, “OK, this isn’t so bad, I can handle this” and the next minute we are blindsided by what feels like a tidal wave and it is all we can do to cling to a life preserver and try to get through the next few minutes. And that’s one of the really confounding parts, never knowing when that tidal wave will hit. And here’s another confounding thing: in one sense, we must each make the swim alone, in that nobody can do it for you. In the end, we have to plunge into those unpredictable seas and swim ourselves across. But in another sense, we don’t have to do it alone, because, at least in spiritual community, there are other swimmers right along side us, or at the very least, there can be safety boats, people who might not be grieving the same loss, but who can keep vigil along side, pulling us up to the boat for times of rest, offering nourishment, offering a rescue if we really do start going under. But still, the swim must be made, and it is exhausting and it is all consuming. It takes much longer to get through than we are usually lead to believe, and it takes way more energy than we are usually lead to believe. I have heard it described as being suddenly dropped down onto a new planet where the rules of gravity are different, and the language and the currency, and everything is different. It may look like the same old world, but you know that somehow, everything is different, and that you have to learn to navigate the world all over.

Kubler Ross, who first brought death and dying out of the shadows, talked about six stages of grief. Over the decades, others have reworked the model, and one of the new versions that I like, although with qualification, is on the front of your bulletin, the Grief Loop. I like the idea of the loop because it gets away from the suggestion that the stages can be conquered in order, or once for all.

And so in this model, there is first of all the initial loss: getting the news of the loss: a death, perhaps, or a diagnosis, or lay off or whatever it may be, and the shock that comes; even if you were sort of expecting it, the feeling that you must be in a dream and will wake up soon. That sense that this can’t be real. This isn’t happening.

Then, next in the model, (although of course these actually happen in any order, and you can be back and forth a dozen times in a minute,) but next in the model comes some version of anger, or I’ve heard it I think more aptly called “protest,” which can include any version of denial, second guessing, blaming, magical thinking, perhaps just minimizing the loss so that one can take it in, in small bites. And this isn’t necessarily bad, in fact it can be helpful to let it in more gradually. Facing the magnitude of some losses has been compared to looking at the sun. It maybe should only be done a moment at a time.

And then may come what this model identifies as depression, although I would have called it something else, like overwhelming sadness, so as to differentiate it from clinical depression, because even though they can certainly overlap, I think at root that they are different things. This is where we have those sudden upsurges, those tidal waves of utter loss, that bring the flood of tears.

And then the eventual experience of detachment, that deadening feeling of slogging through mud, of just going through the motions in your life, which often surprises people in how long it grinds on.

And then, at long last, maybe just little glimpses of the possibility of moving into a new normal, not “back to normal” because it can never go back to how it was. But bit by bit, one step forward and a dozen back, there can finally begin to emerge some sense of tentative reorganization, and eventually maybe even what this model calls “growth,” wherein the pain of all this can, in at least some small way, begin to become useful, perhaps just by making us more compassionate and wise and warmly human.

Now there’s one more thing about this model that has to be said. Each time you go through some version of the loop, it is the nature of the beast that grief tells you you haven’t really made any progress. When you are back into one of those upsurges, “grief spasms,” I have sometimes heard them called, it can feel like you are right back to day one. But what the single loop on your bulletin cover doesn’t show, is that when these loops are all strung together, the model looks like a chain, and when taken from the long view, the overall trend of the chain…is up.

That reorganization phase which causes the overall upward trend, does indeed sneak up on most people, and sometimes can only be recognized in hind sight. And time alone does not necessarily bring it, but time, when combined with some form of emotional and spiritual processing, can indeed, eventually bring better days, can eventually bring that illumination and softness that Ann Lamott talked about. Not that we’d choose the experience in order to gain the growth. I so appreciated Rabbi Kushner’s reflections on his son’s death, where years later he talked about how the entire process had made him a better rabbi, and a far more wise and compassionate person. But then he added, “of course, given the choice, I’d still take my son back in a hot second.” (Amen, rabbi, and thank you for telling the truth.)

I promise you that next week will be more fun. In a way, coping with change is a similar process to the grief loop, but usually somewhat less intense at least. And it definitely includes more levity… So if you are completely bummed out by this sermon, please don’t let it keep you away next week. And if you are living somewhere on the grief loop right now, then definitely come back, because next week will also include more of eventual perks of staying with the process. And finally, if this has knocked a grief scab off an old wound, please consider reaching out to somebody. I make myself available and I am sure there are others as well. Talking with somebody else, somebody who won’t get anxious and try to fix, can be truly helpful. It is part of walking together in spiritual community, an we are here for each other