Leaning into Grief

Last Saturday we sponsored a “grief retreat” at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center. Approximately fifty people attended sessions incorporating music, art, prayer, meditation, and time in nature as ways to mourn and heal. In the week prior to this retreat, my daughter, one of my wisest teachers, said to me on multiple occasions, “I don’t like sadness,” and even “I hate sadness.” How true for most of us. We are conditioned to avoid unpleasant feelings, especially when they seem overwhelming and unbearable.

I empathized with Eleanor: “It’s difficult to feel so much sadness, isn’t it? It feels overwhelming.” I encouraged her to pay attention to her feelings, noticing the ebb-and-flow of her present experience: “Sadness comes and sadness goes. Though sometimes it stays for quite a while.” Mostly, I was present with her, listening to her, accompanying her, and offering her comfort upon request.

C. S. Lewis wrote in his book, A Grief Observed, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” I resonate with both parts of this sentence. (1) Grief can last a long while. Its outcome is unknown. It takes us on journeys we otherwise wouldn’t choose to places unknown. (2) Eventually grief reveals something new for us, in us, around us—a new landscape, inside and out, so to speak. 

Even with this awareness, it’s very human to resist the process of grieving, to fight against it, to cling to what has been lost, or to avoid it altogether . . . especially if our grief is acute, complex, or ambiguous. We endure many losses in this life: death of family, friends, and pets; miscarriages; disintegration of relationships; physical and mental decline; job loss and financial insecurity; and, shattered hopes and dreams for ourselves and others. Pastoral theologian Ray Anderson wrote, “All losses need to be grieved, no matter how trivial they may seem to others.” 

Grief is a normal response to loss of any kind. It is not the loss itself but rather the emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and social impact of the loss. Mourning or grieving is the intentional processing of our grief, a leaning into the grief as it arises. When we lean into our grief, we feel our feelings. Waves of shock, anger, guilt, sadness, anxiety, and disorientation come and go. We remember what we have lost. Hopefully we find ways to ritualize the loss in community, for example through memorial services. We let others draw near to us because we need comfort and solidarity as we mourn. We slowly move toward accepting what we have lost. And then, often by surprise, signs of healing emerge. We notice ourselves laughing once again. We discover renewed purpose and meaning and a new sense of self in relationship to others. Hope bubbles up in spaces in our soul dug out by grief. We do not forget (read that again if you need to do so). There’s no closure (whatever that is). Sadness may remain. But we feel alive again. We have renewed compassion for others who suffer and grieve. And maybe even our understanding of God, of Love, is expanded

Mary Oliver’s poem, Heavy, poignantly depicts this leaning into grief: 

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying 

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this, 

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said, 

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It is not the weight you carry 

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it  

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed? 

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth? 

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe 

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
The sea geese on the steep waves,
a love to which there is no reply? 

As I listened to those attending the grief retreat, as I listened to my daughter, and as I listened to my own heart, I was struck (again) by how much grieving is real living. Living and loving entail suffering and grieving. Thus, accompanying others and being accompanied in our grieving is deeply humanizing. We belong to one another and to God in life, in love, in grief, and in death. As we approach this holiday season, I suspect that old griefs and new griefs may present themselves to us and in us. My hope is that we all can lean in and draw close to our grief, trusting that life and love and laughter will arise in us again. And again.

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4 comments

  1. Nancy Bailey says:

    What a wonderful reflection!

  2. Ken Walter says:

    Thank you. It speaks hope to me.

  3. Patty Curtin says:

    Thank you I needed this 🙏 ❤ I would like to attend your next Grief program retreat. Patty. I am Kate Mahowalds sister. She was an employee for the retreat center for many year’s. May She Rest in Peace. I miss her so much. 🙁

  4. Theresa Latini says:

    Patty, thank you so much for sharing and helping us to make the connection to you through Kate. We so appreciated her gracious presence and miss her. May you feel upheld by love this holiday season as you continue to mourn the loss of her presence with you. We will reach out and let you know when we hold the next grief retreat. It’s in process. Be well.

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