Good Grief

Ric HudgensPastor's Corner

Today I am in southern California participating in the 2017 Kinsler Bartimaeus Institute. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Working at the Intersections: Recontextualizing MLK’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ Sermon on its 50th Anniversary.” Our goal is to build capacity in the radical discipleship movement by gathering “in the current political moment to: remember and recontextualize Dr King’s wisdom; share the energy and skills of our current expressions of witness and work; conspire and collaborate to deepen our convictions and practices of resistance and renewal.”

I’ll be serving as one of the Institute chaplains and convening a Wednesday afternoon session on grief. Why talk about grief in this context?

I believe grief is not just an inescapable part of human life but is actually a gift that helps us deal with loss and bereavement. Loss is inevitable in every life; but when grief is denied, stifled, or otherwise not handled well we only increase and magnify the suffering that loss and bereavement bring into our lives. Grieving well is essential to individual and social health.

Anyone who has experienced loss learns at least two things about grief: first, grief cannot be escaped and second, grief cannot be controlled. The only mature option we have is to welcome grief as a gift that helps us through the emotional turmoil of loss, trauma, and sorrow. Grief can be a wild horse that continually tosses us into the dust; or it can be the essential companion that helps us carry our burden across the desert of loss.

Grief that has never been acknowledged and addressed underlies many of our personal and social ills. It can be closely related to the biblical practices of repentance or lament. Both of these are ways in which a we can process grief in healthy ways that contribute to well-being. Grief that remains unacknowledged or even actively suppressed goes underground and re-emerges in subversive, destructive patterns.

I am convinced that many of the social pathologies we see all around us are partially rooted in loss that has not been processed through good grief. Contemporary, modern societies are especially poor at practicing good grief as we have lost many traditional grieving practices that were time-tested ways of navigating bereavement. Having cut ourselves off from life-giving rituals and ceremonies for example has made our communities weaker and more vulnerable. Processing loss through good grief is essential to healthy and mature community.

Without apology I’ll end with another poem from Mary Oliver who wrote:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Two resources on grief and lament:

1. A blog essay by Carolyn Baker

2. A sermon of mine from 2015