When grief is unpalatable

We’ve spent the last few weeks caring for our daughter who just had surgery.  She was in a fog for about three days from the anesthesia and all the pain killers, and though she had no major complications, we felt like we lost her for five days or so to that medicine-induced haze and the severe pain she experienced intermittently.  Leaving home last weekend and this past Monday to head to work was particularly difficult because she wasn’t fully healed (she still isn’t), and she certainly wasn’t yet herself.

And when people asked well meaning questions I felt most qualified to answer them from my experience–my husband and I were struggling so much with seeing her usual bubbly self all comatose and uncomfortable.  Caring for someone who is in pain is painful.  Despite the seeming wisdom of it, then, when people tried to move past the pain–“but the surgery was successful, right?”  “But she’ll feel better soon,” or even, “Well, of course she’s in pain…”–it made me feel very misunderstood.  It felt like other people were trying to look past the real pain and grief of my experience because it wasn’t very palatable, convenient, or acceptable.  They wanted to resolve my grief for me, but when I came home and found Lucia limp in my husband’s arms or screaming in pain, I felt so alone.

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Lucia and her father cuddling on a Sunday afternoon.  My photo.

Precisely because I was grappling so ungracefully with my own grief these past few weeks, I immediately recognized something similar in my students’ tear-stained faces, slumped shoulders, and speechless, flustering sighs the Wednesday morning after the election.  Truth be told, given my own personal grief, I didn’t quite feel like beholding the grief of another.  But something nudged me that a void remains a void (or becomes even worse) unless a leader, even a trepidatious and imperfect one, steps into it.  And so, armed with some words of wisdom, some humility (after all, I knew that some students’ grief would be juxtaposed with other students’ celebration), and a deep conviction, I showed up to class that morning.

I showed up and told them I wasn’t really equipped to moderate their discussion but felt that we needed to acknowledge what happened, our varied feelings, but mostly that for the 15-20 minutes as a class we would covenant to make our space safe for all people, and to be respectful to especially those who were grieving.  Many students cried, other students aired frustrations, some students tried to move forward.  Very gently I nudged them back toward their grief.  When one student tried to tell others they were overreacting, I did the same.

I tried to carve out a space where grief was acceptable and welcome, recalling how alone I’d felt just that past weekend when my grief had been too much for others to bear.  It was only 20 minutes.  My students have a paper due this weekend. Life goes on.

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But I wonder sometimes what our country might have been this past week if we could have bore one another’s grief a bit more consciously and transparently and reverently  over these past 18 months leading put to the election.  It seems so much anger, righteousness, and denial in both campaigns speak to distinct places and manifestations of grief in more palatable clothes.  It’s always more acceptable in America to express anger as opposed to weakness, righteousness over fear, blame rather than humility.  But it feels decidedly too little too late when so many in this country were already hurting, but we mistook their grief for the ugly face-value emotions they presented.

Perhaps my greatest comfort in these trying personal and corporate experiences of grief is knowing that even when we fail, God’s empathy is deep enough for us all.  When we think we’re alone in our grief, we never really are.  But God is also not “on our side” as we in America are always tempted to think; God does not rejoice in our clanging campaigns of strength and righteousness but in our genuine holy moments of listening to one another.

In the dramatic days after the election, despite our penchant for progress, there have been holy moments of grief.  They are moments we want to move past, but what if they’re just the beginning?  What if they are moments that truly matter?  I learned this past week that even when we are weak, God can make us strong.  We can make space for those who are grieving to be heard, and while it may seem a simple step, it’s a vital one to healing.

We cannot heal if we do not break apart.  We cannot lead if we assume God is looking for wholeness and greatness and power.  Perhaps God can use us just as we are.  Perhaps our lament is pleasing to God’s ears, too.

 

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