A Reflection on Grief
“There are many different kinds of grief,” said Marian, my elderly friend. It was 2005, and she was comforting me as I was trying to navigate the reality of a cancer diagnosis. True enough, my prognosis was relatively good (my oncologist used the phrase “get you through this and on with the rest of your life”), but the year that lay ahead for me included an arduous array of treatments. One thing I certainly had lost was the luxurious designation of being robustly healthy. Up to that point, I had been able to tick off “no” in each box in the list of various diseases every time I went to a doctor visit; all that had changed. Marian gave me permission to name what I was feeling as a kind of grief, and the wisdom of her octogenarian perspective was a gift.
In these pandemic days it seems deeply appropriate to give ourselves permission to say we are feeling grief. Life has changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and many of the activities that we found life-giving and that brought joy have had to be either postponed or given up entirely. Hospitality extended and reciprocated, listening to or participating in musical performances or plays in person, sharing the joys of being together in corporate worship services, making spontaneous trips to stores for supplies for projects, browsing the library shelves, sharing the experience of watching a movie in a theater or listening to a lecture in an auditorium. In this season of upheaval, anxiety, loss, and grief, I believe the Lord is inviting me to pay attention to at least two things.
First, as John Pavlovitz—author, pastor, blogger--has said, “Everyone is grieving. Go easy.” In the last fifteen months, my family has been immersed in two unprecedented experiences of grief. As some of you know, in April of 2019, my nephew Raphael was murdered in a completely unprovoked double homicide. The man who had been renting the basement room in the house just outside Denver in which Raph had only recently rented a third-floor room, walked up the stairs to the kitchen and shot both my nephew and the landlady, whom the murderer had been obsessed with for some time. He then called the police. After a grueling year of hearings and waiting, in the weekend prior to the scheduled jury trial this past April, the murderer entered a plea agreement, so the trial was avoided. Finally, on June 10th of this year, the sentencing hearing took place and family members were given the opportunity to make victims’ impact statements. Those who couldn’t be there in person were able to attend remotely (with the camera on only the judge’s face). At the conclusion the judge made it clear that the murderer will be in jail the rest of his life. The grief associated with losing a loved one to gun violence has ushered my family into a world well known to some, but staggeringly new to us. Hearing after hearing, long-distance travel, haunting questions about what those last moments of Raph’s life were like, and the daunting task of navigating the loss of a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a gifted artist, a friend, and a teacher have all taken their toll. I had absolutely no comprehension of what it is like to lose a member of my family to unprovoked violence, to hold my sister and brother-in-law as they are sobbing, to review Raph’s art and wonder what the world lost, to listen during a sentencing hearing to a murderer attempt to give some justification for his actions. Now we know firsthand and in a palpable way an experience that was once incomprehensible; we also know that every time we read in the news about a life claimed through gun violence there is a family represented, an entire circle of people with broken hearts and deep grief. There is still much that I do not understand and have not experienced, but I do know that I need to “go easy” and listen carefully.
In another loss for my family this year, I have recognized the second invitation from the Lord. Having lived with the impact of ulcerative colitis since he was in his early twenties, my oldest brother, Chuck, developed signs a year ago that his body was not coping as well as it had. In January be became seriously ill, underwent multiple procedures and tests, and eventually was diagnosed with a terminal cancer that is often related to colitis. My niece, Amy, made arrangements to care for him at home, which was complicated because of my sister-in-law’s early dementia and Parkinson’s. Amy’s plan included my sisters and me tag-teaming to help her as best we could. With the reality of Covid-19 travel restrictions, I kept the documentation of his hospice care with me in the car as I made the four-hour trip multiple times.
If we are listening, we are always learning about ourselves and about those we love. Never was this truer for me than the time between mid-January and May 5, the day Chuck died. I had witnessed his courage and strength and tender heart before. My childhood memory of being a 5-year-old with a 10-year-old brother growling, “Don’t touch that television channel or I’ll break your arm!” (and I believed him!) had many times been counterbalanced with his expressions of interest and humor and love.
However, the best gift of accompanying him in small ways in those final weeks of his life came one day when I was helping Amy reposition him on the hospital bed in the living room. Quiet, physically still, and barely responsive much of the time, he needed to be shifted occasionally, and moving the body that had undergone such wasting change was a task for two people. This time, I was privileged to gain a new window into his tender heart. As we gently rolled him slightly from one side toward the other, he stirred and asked, “Is everyone ok?”
“Yes,” we answered. After a pause, we said “Everyone is ok, and we will take care of each other. You don’t have to take care of us now. We promise we will take care of each other.” In his last days, and for me, the last time I heard him speak, he was seeking out the welfare of those around him.
Many of us have lost loved ones in recent months. Many of us have had diagnoses that have changed our life. Many of us are navigating an unprecedented sense of isolation. Many of us are longing desperately to visit family members who are far away. Many of us are earnestly trying to understand how we will take next steps. And much of this includes a profound sense of loss; as Marian said, there are many different kinds of grief. In the midst of this, I commend to you a question from the spiritual director’s perspective: What is God’s invitation to you in this? For me, it is to walk gently, to go easy, because I do not know how but I can be sure that others are grieving. And secondly, it is to consider how I can lean into the biblically sound legacy left to me by my brother and ask, “Is everyone okay?” and then seek creative ways of taking care of those entrusted to me.