You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,Psalm 30: 11 NIV
These last few weeks I’ve been reflecting on just how horribly complicated grief can be. This year’s rather awkward and unusual marking of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the eleventh day seemed more difficult than usual, events long past finding an unaccustomed sharpness in my memory.
This year Christmas too will be very different for our family, as it will for many around the world. In January 2018 I lost my father after a very short illness to the rapid onset of Parkinson’s disease. In late January this year my father-in-law died very suddenly of what was almost certainly the effects of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Both very different men, and yet in their own ways a significant source of love and wisdom to all of us, a sort that we all need at times, found at its best when we think we don’t! For many there has been a new strength of grieving for those that are still living but who, like my mother, are locked away in a care home with dementia; geographically close, but like many others increasingly distanced by an acceleration of their condition.
In addition to the people that the world grieves for this Christmas, many are grieving loss of opportunity, disrupted plans and aspirations (especially the young), financial stability, work, relationships. Basic freedoms of choice that so many of us take for granted in the West have increasingly become a precious commodity, the loss of which many are grieving perhaps for the first time. Maybe we are all grieving something of ‘normality’ (whatever that was), torn between desperately wanting the dust to settle and yet a stark realisation that things will undoubtedly never be the same for any of us, regardless of how much we may try to return to what we knew. The liminal places are often the least comfortable.
Since moving to Cornwall, the sea and rugged coastline can’t help to have become a more present source of metaphor, speaking into grief is no exception. Sometimes the waves of grief can seem so destructive, explosive, pounding at our protective coastline, seeking to exploit weakness and expose the hidden depths of an often painful truth as to who we really are and what we really feel; grief has a tendency to be very honest. Grief can be a wave that often takes us by surprise, and yet also one that we can sometimes see far out to sea. And yet even as we stand and watch it rolling in, we still don’t seem to be able to prepare ourselves for it all that well.
At other times though, life’s ocean produces waves that renew; sands shift, pebbles sing. As the churning foam of each wave subsides (and eventually it does), it is in those moments of silence that we often hear most clearly. For like in any relationship (and I think grief is one of those things that we do learn over time to accept as a companion), listening is important. And so, as I quietly sit in the calm after having been caught by what I thought was a ripple but turned out to be a whopper, watching for the next..maybe some of the things that I’ve heard through the ears of my own journey with grief may help others.
Don’t try to ride the wave.. it won’t take you anywhere. Grief is not something that we should try to control, nor facing it something that we should avoid; how we each learn deal with a wave of grief is a very individual lesson. I have personally found that making space for it and owning it as a critical part of my journey is key to hearing the new wisdom it has come to speak. By learning to recognise the signs of an impending deluge and responding to it with purpose, I find myself shaping a safe environment within which the wave can do its work, allowing it to wash over me. That may mean physically making space in my diary or simply being kinder to myself for a while.
I’ve found encouragement in knowing that Jesus is in the wave, however hidden by the bubbles he may seem; sometimes it takes time to hear him calling though!
Don’t try to fill in the holes yourself; you can’t. Grief comes in many forms; holes appear in our lives that cannot be filled easily and nor perhaps should they be. As we take time to embrace our sense of loss, we will often begin to glimpse a new beauty to our memories that, far from filing the holes, decorates them in ways that we least expect as they become an even more valuable part of our onward journey. It is Jesus that brings beauty for ashes, not us. I struggle to be patient, but it is as I settle and wait that I am most aware of his oil of gladness pouring onto my mourning in ways that in the moment of the wave hitting I often can’t even think could be possible.
What you hear is not always just for you, it may be for those around you too. Don’t expect anyone to be able to truly understand your grief, for even when faced with similar loss (a shared relative for example) we will respond in ways that are as unique as our individual relationships with each other are. The flip side is that some will struggle to know how to respond, creating what may become more distance than you are used to. Grief can be a lonely place, however it doesn’t have to be so forever. Eventually think about sharing what you hear with those closest to you, it will help them to build a picture of how best to simply ‘be’ with you in your grief. When I first met my wife eighteen years ago I took her to a site high up on a mountain in Wales where an army friend’s ashes are scattered. We haven’t been there since, nor have we really talked much about it. The value has been found in having invited her to be part of that grief in a way that acknowledges our relationship but doesn’t force any form of closure. Finding community is key and sometimes you have to be brave and reach out for it in ways that you are perhaps unaccustomed; a beauty found in all four Gospels is the way that they tell the story of God’s presence within community.
And finally….When you begin to hear the pebbles sing, listen to their new song, for it is your new song. Grief changes us, it’s unavoidable. In the short term things can look pretty bleak, but eventually you will begin to hear the waves sing a new song. This may not always be a better song, why should it be; in most cases nothing is better than being with the person you have lost. Listen for the new rhythm of your life and go with it. For me, revisiting memories from over two decades ago this November, memories that I have often visited before but perhaps wasn’t ready to properly look at, never mind listen to, has strengthened me. My new song is one of greater courage to be myself and placing a greater value on who I am.
Jesus doesn’t turn mourning into dancing by magic! It happens through the process (albeit a sometimes painful one) of his love working in our lives.