It has been just over a week since my wife’s sister died in an automobile accident. She was 41 years old. Following the sudden death of a loved one; seven days might as well be forever. It feels like the time between the big bang and the formation of life on earth: fits and starts stumbling through the ongoing darkness. The present slows to an interminable crawl of erratic sleep, strange dreams, waiting, watching, and hoping someone doesn’t expect you to speak more than a mumble.
On Sunday morning, while I was preparing for worship, one of the choir members asked how my wife was doing. I told her, “she doesn’t feel like coming today. Everything is still a bit overwhelming.” To which the choir member replied, “I know, it just s-u-c-k-s.” Liz was right; it does suck. Death sucks, whether expected or accidental, it s-u-c-k-s for the living. How do we live with the suck of death all around us?
Here’s the good news. We’re not the first (nor will be the last) people to ask the question. This may be one of the oldest questions humans have asked. How do we live with the pain of loss? Where do we place this pain; given already complex demands on our lives? Whether you were a nomad on the plains of Central Asia 2000 years ago or a 21st-century person today with access to technology and health care, you still die. Death is a reality we cannot ignore. What connects us to our ancestors, no matter how primitive they might have been, is death. We mourn, we ritualize death, and we all feel sadness and loss when someone dies.
- Acknowledging the “suckiness” of death is one of the traits which identify us as humans. Other animals and species do not grieve as we do. If we deny our grief, we deny our humanity.
How do we live with the pain of loss? Where do we place this pain? I would argue that grief is something we accept and acknowledge. Grief need not be embraced. Trouble has found us and already enveloped our lives. We do not need to recognize the presence of the sun or moon in the sky. They are constants in the sky, whose daily (or nightly) positions we accept. The light of the sun finds us each day. We acquiesce to its presence (even hiding inside doesn’t take the sun away) and acknowledge its light. However, you can take precautions from being sunburned. The sun remains powerful, but you retain an element of control.
- The more we engage with our grief, the more control we have over our grief. When our grief is identified, described, and occupied instead of remaining dormant (like a sleeping black dog), we are living through (versus in) the suckiness.
How long should you feel this way? How long does it take to get over such a tremendous loss? Every person is different. People grieve in various ways. Moving on is different for everybody. I will say this, from my work with different families, people seem to know. Even in the midst of the suck and sorrow, stories should be told and laughter heard. Humans are designed to hold two opposing ideas in their brains at the same time. We can feel sorrow at losing someone we love but we can laugh at stories and memories in the midst of that pain. The pain may not go away anytime soon. However, there is a difference between sharing and dwelling. When we dwell, we give more power to grief than the grief deserves. When we share stories and memories (in a community) we are retaining control and maintain the delicate balance between living in and living through the suckiness.
In the Old Testament, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how long to grieve. Moses picks up where we began; to ignore the need to grieve is inhuman and wrong. Indifference in the face of death, like a Roman stoic, isn’t what the Israelite God directed or Jesus modeled. Jesus grieves and weeps. Moses wants to tell God’s people an appropriate way to grieve that reflects your humanity and the covenant you’ve made with God.
- “You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Deut. 14: 1-2).
Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead for you are a chosen people of God. Moses says this is an extreme form of grieving. Why? The idol cults, the people who worshiped Gods other than Yahweh, had strange hair cutting and body mutilation practices such as the ones described. These may have reflected the traditions they witnessed in Egypt. That’s the kind of behavior we saw the Prophets of Baal engaging in during the battle with Elijah on Mount Carmel. “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (I Kings 18:26-28) Hurting yourself, physically (or mentally) isn’t the right way to mourn or remember the dead. Your life, the life you’re living now, is valuable, that’s what Moses is saying. Do you need to be reminded of this?
- This is why the law tries to create harmony between too much and too little grief.
Over the centuries, the Rabbis outlined various ideas about the appropriate lengths of time for mourning. A year for parents, 30 days for relatives other than parents, a week of mourning for community members, and a week set aside between death and burial. To our western ears, raised in a therapeutic culture, these limits sound arbitrary and even absurd. How can one place time limits on grief? The truth is you can’t. No one knows how long it takes to get over the death of someone you love. We do know the pain and loss sucks to high heaven. I think the Rabbis were trying to give us an idea when no good ideas were available. Parents were essential, next came friends and family, and then we had to take our own lives from there. I see it as the living honoring the dead in a befitting way so the living might go on living. Even if that living, for the moment, is through the suck called grief.