A few days ago, Rich and I were having a minor argument about the lyrics to the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, so he found it on his phone and we listened (I was right, which I will gloat about, because I’m seldom right about lyrics).
As we were listening, I remembered the Twila Paris version of the song that my mom used to listen to all the time, and how that would often be a part of hymn sings that she would lead at the nursing home where she worked for most of my childhood. Almost immediately, my eyes filled with tears that refused to be blinked back as I thought about how all I have left of her are those memories.
I sat there crying, and I apologized. I’m not sure what came over me. I know that grief doesn’t have a time-table and would never think of allowing someone else to apologize for sadness over loss. Yet in that moment, I felt this overwhelming need to retract my own emotions.
When my mom passed away, I didn’t know how to grieve. I wanted it to be simple – to simply grieve the loss of the woman who taught me the most about loving the overlooked and the outcast. To mourn that her life was cut short by a disease that stole her voice and her mobility and even her smile near the end. To weep for games we would never get to play, songs we would never get to sing, hugs we would never get to exchange. But that grief was clouded with regret. Regret that I had made things more difficult between us in her final months, regret that I hadn’t spent more time with her, regret that we had never been as close as I’m sure she would have wanted. I wasn’t sure how I could cry for the pure reasons with so many impure reasons polluting that lament.
When my divorce was final, I wanted to grieve, but I felt like I didn’t deserve to because I was the one who had screwed everything up. Do you really get to feel bad for the end of a marriage when you are the one who ended it? Sorrow felt like just another selfish indulgence in a long list of selfish choices. The loss of our church, the loss of friends, the loss of professional standing – all legitimate losses, all difficult to mourn properly.
Grief is difficult.
But I think that often in the Church, we make it more difficult because we are so afraid of it.
Grief is ugly and messy and unpredictable. It focuses on us – our loss, our pain. Grief has elements of fear and doubt and hopelessness. Grief seems to fly in the face our teachings about selflessness and peace and joy. When we grieve, we’re somehow not as Christian as when we’re rejoicing.
We’re about to enter Holy Week, the final stage of Lent. Next week we remember the suffering and death of Jesus at the hands of those who days earlier had sung his praises in the streets. We remember betrayal, fear, doubt, and despairing.
Yet so many modern evangelical churches gloss over this part of the story. People wonder why we celebrate “Monday Thursday.” Good Friday is spent rehearsing for the Easter morning service. Holy Saturday is filled with Easter egg hunts. We skip the sorrow in favor of the celebration. We numb our pain with chocolate crosses and songs of the resurrection rather than embracing the discomfort and mystery of what had to come before. We fear that we are not worthy to experience sadness – that our tears may reflect back on our own negative choices, our own inflicted pain, our own doubt.
In the car, as I apologized and tried to force myself to stop crying, Rich took my hand and assured me that I could grieve without guilt. There would be times when sadness would come for any number of things, including things that might be difficult to understand, but that rather than trying to ignore my pain, I should go ahead and allow myself permission to experience it.
Our lives are marked by events that bring us joy and ecstasy, but they are also marked by pain and loss. Our humanity demands that we acknowledge all of these. Grief may be hard, but it makes us human and that is something we all share.