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Grief, the Holidays, and Hope Ė Advent I

By Charles T. Rush, Jr.

December 5, 1993

Psalms 23:

K a
te and I have a very good friend, a tremendously accomplished woman, strong and warm, witty and full of mirth. One fall day our families were eating dinner together and she was just not her usual self. She was rather cross with her kids which was unusual. She got about 3 different projects going at the same time- cooking dinner, entertaining friends, and organizing children- and scurried everywhere rather frantically. As the night wore on she became somewhat winsome and then cynical. Finally, she began to tell a story and just began to weep and she didnít really want any comfort from her husband. Through these tears she said ĎI just donít know what is coming over me. I am falling totally apart. I looked at myself in the mirror after lunch today and thought to myself ĎCharlotte Lynn pull yourself togetherí. I went home slightly worried. I ran into her a couple days later and she began to apologize. She said Ďitís the funniest thing... I realized later that it was the anniversary of my motherís death. You know I havenít thought about her for the longest time. Sheís been dead for 15 years."

       Her mother died when she was a young woman. Her mother had been very accomplished. She taught ballet and for quite some time had been a choreographer with one of the leading ballet companies in the country. She suffered from depression from time to time and during one of her last battle with depression she took her life. Our friend felt quite abandoned at the time. Afraid, controlled by anxiety. For about two years after her mothers death, she had panic attacks from time to time which were quite debilitating when they happened. She got on with her life after a while but it was difficult.

       We were standing on the playground watching our kids in the silence that friends can share and she said "Isnít it funny the way your soul can remember things your head has forgotten."

       Indeed, it is! Grief is something that happens to us and we simply respond to it. We do not control grief, it sets the agenda in ways that we are not fully conscious of. For this reason alone, we have trouble with this in our culture. What do I mean?

       Our immediate region- Summit, Short Hills, Chatham- shares certain cultural values of success. We are a management culture. We became successful because we are organized and goal oriented and that is the realm we spend most of our time in, where we feel most comfortable. We have a problem, we form a committee, delegate tasks, report back with proposed solutions, debate, implement and resolve.. We structure time. We are the masters of the Ďto do listí. You see people on Saturday morning around town. 7 a.m. jog; drop kids at 8 a.m. soccer; 8:30 dump run; 9:15 price turf builder at Hardware store; 9:30 pick up kids from soccer. We are scheduling; we are efficient; we are in control. We have defined our lives around setting goals and achieving them and many of us have achieved considerable success, leading us to overvalue goal setting in itself.

       There is nothing wrong with goal setting. But the fact of the matter is that some of the most significant things that happen in our life, we do not plan. They happen to us and we respond and how we respond reveals our character to ourselves. Just a few lines by way of example: "You have been drafted". "I am pregnant". "It is malignant". "The financial aid office is pleased to announce that you are eligible..." "I am sorry to have to inform you..."

       They happen to us and we respond. We cannot block out time for them. We cannot structure them in order. Most of the time crises seem to come in bunches- bam, bam, bam- like a set of killer waves in the ocean.

       Grief is like this. We respond to it. When a loved one dies or we experience the loss of something significant- like in divorce or the loss of a job that was our identity- we are overwhelmed by some of the most powerful emotions we will experience in our life and we do not set the agenda, these emotions do.

       That is why grieving is a kind of responsive management. We are responding to the rhythms of our soul.

       The holiday season usually presents some special challenges for people who are in grief. The family is gathered together, frequently going through some rituals that you have gone through together for years. And when someone significant is missing from those rituals about the only thing you notice is that great, big empty chair. [As Joni Mitchell says in one of her songs Ďthe bedís too big; the frying panís too wide."]

       I want to share a couple of things today to think about with grief. I have two parts: some words to those of us who have to encounter and deal with people grieving and a few reminders for those who are in grief. This is some basic teaching and if you are not going through this right now, listen up anyway, you will go through it sometime. That is a garauntee.

       For those Encountering Grief

       Barbara LesStrang has put together a nice little piece for us novices who have to let others do their grieving and we donít have a clue. As a Minister, I have heard some truly Ďboneheadedí remarks over the years at funerals from well meaning people who were clueless. I heard a woman last week that the thing she feared the most after her husband died was shopping because when you are going down the aisle with your grocery cart and you encounter one of these boneheads there is no place to run. She used to shop before 7 and after 10 for a year.

       I understand this. Death is uncomfortable. We donít know what to say. We donít know how to communicate our care. We donít know how to be helpful. And some of us havenít dealt with our own anxieties about death enough, so when we see other people dealing with death, emotionally we just want to run away.

       Let me run over a few basic doís and doníts. A lot of us are not sure what to say to people. Ms. LesStrang writes this " Please donít tell me that you know Ďjust how I feelí . No one will ever really understand just how I feel. And in your desire to comfort me, donít offer comments like Ďyouíre attractive, you can marry again,í or ĎNow, now, donít cry- you must be strongí, or, ĎYou can always have another childí, or, unbelievably ĎYouíre lucky it was only your motherí" Unless you have gone through a similar death, you really donít know how they feel. Anyway, that is not really all that important for communicating care to begin with.

       Presence is a lot more important here than profound insight. Just focus on demonstrating care and support. You can say ĎI am sorry for your lossí. Then donít be afraid of some silence. Silence is okay. You can say Ďyou must be in a lot of painí. That is clearly the case. You can ask Ďhow are you?í

       Then this Ď I need to know that you care about me. I need to feel your touch, your hugs. But donít worry over what to say to me about my loss. In the beginning, I probably wonít remember anyhow. I need you just to be with me. And I need to be with you. And please donít leave me alone for long periods of time feeling that your presence would be an intrusion. More than ever before, I need to be with people who care about me. And if you canít be with me, your phone calls, your letters, or even short notes sharing your thoughts and feelings about the loss of my loved one will help me far more than you ever know. Itís very comforting to me to know that you share my grief.í Check in. You donít need an agenda, just do it. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is listen, sometimes to the same things more than once. That is not weird, it is part of the process of our souls catching up to our head. Intellectually we know people are dead, but emotionally we are Ďletting goí a little bit at a time.

       And a special word for church folks. " Please donít ell me, either, that this death was really Godís will- or that God needs the presence of my loved one more than I do. This may cause me to doubt God just when I need God the most." If you do, you usually just add to the length of my week, for most of the recipients of these comments usually end up in my office demanding an explanation of this pernicious God. " And please, donít suggest that I take a pill or offer me a drink to Ďhelp meí get through this trying time. Rather, encourage me to eat properly, to rest and to exercise and, as much as I am able to, to maintain a healthy lifestyle." Drunkenness doesnít heal the pain, it simply numbs it. It is not an efficient way of dealing with deep emotions. It is merely a temporary displacement. These emotions need to come to the surface, honestly and straight forward. Booze only compounds the emotions or delays their onset.

       Especially in those early phases of grief, shortly after someone dies " donít worry if I behave strangely. Remember that Iím grieving. I may even be in shock. I am struggling to cope with many frightening thoughts and unwanted feelings, and to live in a world that now no longer includes my loved one. I may feel overwhelmed. I may feel afraid, I may even feel guilty. I may also feel rage or deep despair. And I may confuse easily. I may realize I am becoming more and more forgetful, and at time I may even believe that I am losing my mind. But above all, I hurt. Grief is a pain that is unlike any pain I have ever felt in my life."

       Maybe because of the strange behavior that scares us. Sometimes we are afraid to mention a loved one that has passed. But donít be. " I need to talk about my loss. Each time I discuss my loss, I am helping myself to face the reality of the death of my loved one." Donít be afraid to mention the loved one who is dead because they are not simply gone just because they are dead. They are always present even if they are not seen and it is Okay to acknowledge that. Over time, people will begin to form a new relationship with people that they have lost, but they are never vanquished from memory.

       So I need you to believe in me. And I need for you to believe in my ability to get through this grief in my own time and in my own way. Please donít tell me that it is time for me to get on with my life. I am probably saying this to myself. Each of us is different. Each loss is unique. I may move through my grief more quickly than another or I may move more slowly. I just need for you to be patient with me now- for you to try to understand." Children may feel that Mom really needs to get out of her shell and dress the tree at Christmas time just like we always did. Get out the lights, make some egg nog, and do it. You may feel that way but donít try to set an agenda for your loved ones and force them to go through with it. Chances are it is your discomfort needs that are being addressed rather than theirs. People need time. In grief, we experience some of the deepest emotions of our life. Furthermore, we discover not only our strengths but our weaknesses. And when a weakness is exposed, a vulnerability, it is difficult to get past that quickly. Part of healing is mastering these parts of ourselves and we can only handle so much at a time. Try to let people in grief set the agenda for themselves. It is an important way of demonstrating that you are truly a friend.

       A Word for those in Grief

       Secondly, I want to say a couple of things to people that are in the midst of grief that you need to be reminded about. Margie Kennedy - Reeves puts out a thoughtful publication called AfterLoss and she has made a couple of suggestions that I pass on this morning.

       "Thanksgiving and Christmas are, for most families, fond and familiar harbingers of time, for they seem to have a way of filling our memories with warm and peerless glimpses of good times shared with the people we love the most.

       "What happens then, when suddenly one of these people is gone? The holidays still rush headlong onto the scene in their old familiar time slot. People all around you are making their usual plans. They are shopping and baking and decking the halls; dancing and prancing and acting as if they didnít notice the broken heart youíre wearing.

       "They try to cheer you with their laughter, include you in the gaiety, and it is obvious that few can understand your numbing pain. There are no special privileges or parking places for those who are crippled with grief. But the newly bereaved often watch from the sidelines of their minds: detached, emotionally fragile and afraid. In watching the merriment of others, their alienation seems complete.

       "What is there to celebrate, when all the joy seems to have gone out of your life? Many grieving people have said they wished it were possible to sleep through the entire holiday season without having any knowledge of its existence. Instead of anticipating a joyful celebration, these special days are often painful reminders of our loss, pointing up the reality that things can never be the same.

       "No one wants to impose their sadness on others, and to do so at holiday time seems unthinkable. And so the newly grief-stricken person may go through all of the motions, and do so admirably, for the sake of family members or friends. Some people actually become physically or emotionally ill for days or weeks following a time of celebration where they felt it was necessary to pretend for the sake of others."

       There are things you can do to help yourself and to help those around you to make this as productive a time as possible.

       First, plan ahead. Especially when you know that certain things are going to be difficult. There are many of us who have design a rather full schedule for ourselves during this time of the year. It is likely to be overwhelming when tinged with grief at every turn. You not only need to plan less and give yourself more time for breaks, you need to think about being able to escape if you need to. That is not being selfish. It is paying attention to the rhythms of your soul and knowing when enough is enough.

       To the best that you are able identify your feelings. I grew up in a tradition in the South of great Stoicism. We were very strong for others. We didnít express our feelings. We just got through tough times with grit and determination. The problem is that if you are not honest, people will think you are doing better than you are, and they wonít check in later on when loneliness is acute. Be honest without being onerous.

       Furthermore, set the tone for what kind of celebration you want to have. Families are funny about their traditions. My in-laws have a wonderful tradition at Christmas. After the Christmas dinner at the dining room table with the China and the silver and the candles all lit, we hoist the latest new born on the table and let them walk down the middle of the table. No one has any idea where it got started or what it is supposed to mean but we do it year after year. Many of these are the wonderful idiosyncrasies of our family life but sometimes they need to be changed. Maybe you should let someone else do the cooking this year. Maybe the gathering should be at someone elseís house. Maybe. There is a time when things need to be changed.

       And they wonít be unless you state your needs. I know that this is difficult because a number of people in grief donít exactly know that they need. But other people cannot read your mind either and they need help to know how to be compassionate. To the degree that you are able, tell people what you need.

       Finally, allow other people to grieve differently. Deaths in families affect everyone differently because the one that passed had a different relationship with each member of the family. Their memories are different and the shape and scope of their grieving is different. I knew a brother and sister who lost their father. The girl became deeply involved in exercise and was nearly anorexic for a year. Her brother slept all of the time. Each loss was personal. Pain is not comparable. Ways of grieving are unique to the individual. Let other people have a different space for this than you.

       This is a lot of advice and that is not my style. But I pass these things on which I have received because sometimes we need some basic instruction,

       Grief and hope are related. Grief need not be an unmentionable downer to be avoided at all costs. It is a constitutive part of our lives. When it is done well, it can be very healing, intimate, caring, authentic, growthful, and loving. It can remind us of what our living is all about in the first place.


       i LesStrang, Barbara "After My Loss". A brief catalogue of aphorisms about grief, it can be ordered by writing to: Harbor House (West) Publishers, Box 2545, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270.

       ii Kennedy Reeves, Margie. "Handling the Holidays", Harbor House West, 1996.

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