Sunday, September 21, 2008

On the Way Home From Kansas

The thing I hate about grieving is all the grief involved. I wish it was more like a MacDonald’s hamburger (which has about as much actual beef as a Greenpeace luncheon). No. Grief is the real deal. There’s no way to get around it, under it, and certainly no way to get over it, except to simply go through it.

I guess before going through this, I didn’t realize that there were certain types of grief that are inconsolable, that can’t simply be unlocked by the right combination of words (whether they be human or Divine). Grief sort of grabs your heart in a choke hold, planting a foot firmly on your stomach for leverage, and requires that either you completely surrender to its demands or be destroyed by its relentlessness. So the process then of grieving is sort of like going to jail for what was done to you, rather than for what you did. For the loss that you suffered, you must pay a price. The loss itself was costly, but grief extracts a further penalty.

The easiest and maybe the most common mistake we make in grieving, is in trying to make sense out of it all, trying to find answers to our questions. This is not to say we shouldn’t ask the questions. We should ask them. We should shout them with tears and beat our fists against the ground (which I have found is quite therapeutic, as long as you’re careful how hard you beat and who sees you do it). But we tend to want to extend the comfort of reason. This happened because. Yet without fail, anything that follows those three words is sure to not be comforting. That’s because grief is not interested in answers. It is interested only in pain. And this is where the problem begins for most of us.

I think its easy to reduce our grief to a need for answers. We tell ourselves if we just knew why, then we might be o.k. But if we look honestly, answers probably are not what we need or what we want. I mean, suppose the “why” is answered. This happened to you because. Would the pain be gone? Not likely. But for some reason we think that it would. The truth is though, we really don’t want answers. What we want is for things to be the way they were before all this happened. We want our lost loved ones back. We want our lives back, our dreams back, our joy back. And its difficult to imagine that anything as difficult as that could be found in a simple explanation of “why?”

Grief forces us to confront the pain. That is grief’s job. This can be problematic though because everyone around us wants to do whatever they can to help alleviate the pain. Our friends and our families see us hurting and they want to rescue us. They look at us and see that we have fallen in a deep, dark pit and so one by one they come to us, and lower a rope made of good intentions, at times bad cliches, and often the sincerest of hopes that they will finally be the one who rescues us; perhaps hoping that in rescuing us, that they too would be rescued.

But the stark truth is, that what we need is not to be rescued, but only to be recognized. What we need is to have our pain acknowledged, not resolved. What we need is for those we love to be o.k. with our pit. Because for now, we need the pit. We don’t need pity, and its important that we don’t confuse the two. But in the pit, since we can’t look out, we are forced to look in. We are forced to experience our anger, our despair, our outrage and not run from it or minimize it. The pit is not a place of explanation or enlightenment, it is only a place of experience. And those who grieve need friends who will see them and not pretend the pit is not there, who can acknowledge – “yes, you are in a dark and difficult place.” It is amazing how much comfort one finds in a tearful, and silent face that doesn’t know what to say.

When Paula and I were traveling home from a short trip to Kansas recently we stopped for lunch at her aunt’s house. During the meal we were talking about some roof work she had done to her house after a recent storm. Then, Paula’s aunt very matter of factly slipped in a story about some salvia she had planted in front of her house years ago.

A terrible storm that summer had done much damage and had flattened the salvia. They looked pathetic, but before she could pull them up, her dad commented, “I’ve seen sicker dogs than that live.”

She decided not to pull the plants, but left them as they were.

“That fall,” she said, “they bloomed more beautifully than they ever had before.” She concluded, “You see, they were stripped, but not dead. Their roots were still good.”

Paula and I both looked at each other, wide eyed as though we had just encountered a burning bush, and somehow we knew, our fall will come too.