October 2020: A Facilitated Grieving Exercise

This is the last week of our series on grief called “A Time to Mourn.” You’ve heard from Mike, Sara, Jim, and Alex – some mental health and counseling professionals, some clergy well-versed in pastoral care.

Grief, we know now, is complicated, circular, tied up in knots. Sometimes it’s personal, and sometimes it’s not. It makes no promises, and it makes little sense.

And while we’ve reached the end of this series, I wish it were also the end of our grief: all our personal and collective griefs. But as we turn the corner into colder months, and as this pandemic rages on, and as the U.S. elections draw uncomfortably near, and as we mourn violence and natural disasters around the world, we know: there will be, yet again, another time to mourn.

Traditions of Grieving

I hope that this series has left you with some tools in your spiritual first-aid kit. If you find yourself needing to come back to these messages in the weeks or months to come, you can find the recordings on our Facebook page.

This week, I’m afraid I don’t have much for additional tools to offer you. But what I hope I can express is permission: permission to grieve however you need to grieve.

So let me just come out and say this plainly:

You have lost something during this time. The pandemic has changed your life. You have lost something important to you. Maybe it was a sense of safety or comfort. Maybe it was opportunities. Maybe it was the chance to see friends or relatives.

Maybe you lost beloved people. Maybe you lost physical abilities. Or a home or a job. Maybe you lost community, the warm hug of a friend, a reassuring embrace, a casual brush with a stranger. 

All of us lost time. All of us lost routine and security. And all of us lost the company of over 200,000 people – beloved children of God – who were taken from us too soon and without need.

You have lost something. And that loss hurts. And maybe you feel like you don’t have the right to grieve. Or you feel like it shows faithlessness. Or ingratitude for what you do have.

But Scripture and examples from around the world show that grieving is not faithlessness. We can be emotionally honest about what it means to be human and still faithfully love our Creator and neighbor. And grieving is not ingratitude. We can be grateful for what we have and still grieve what we have lost.

You have permission to grieve what you have lost. If you are looking for someone’s permission, if you are looking for God’s permission: you have permission to grieve what you have lost. Even if what you lost is something you can’t hold. Even if what you lost can’t be described in words. 

Grief is what we feel. It’s an emotion. But grieving – or mourning – that is the process of moving through the grief. Imagine that grief is the cold sensation of jumping into the ocean. But grieving – mourning – is how we swim through it, the unexpected glimmers of company and beauty under its surface, a vastness that seems endless until we see the shore. And even then, it hasn’t ended; it’s just changed.

People don’t all grieve the same way, just as we don’t all swim the same way. Around the world and in different cultures, people grieve in profound and meaningful ways. 

In the United States, we have a dominant grieving culture that is quiet, solemn, and solitary. Oftentimes, we give people space but we check in with them. Or we bring over meals, chip in with chores, and help people move through the basics of “normal life.”

In parts of China, my parents’ homeland, people may observe a mourning period of up to 100 days. Some people hire professional wailers who cry and wail at a person’s funeral. Hired mourners can help ease family members who might feel embarrassed about public displays of emotion.

In Ghana, people might advertise the funeral of a deceased loved one on a billboard or over the radio to make sure that no one in the community misses the opportunity to grieve and celebrate the beloved one’s life together. These celebrations of life can be enormous.

And in the Jewish tradition, people may mourn together by “sitting shiva.” In this tradition, the family members of the person who has died gather in a home, and they mourn together for seven days. It’s a practice of togetherness, and it gives people structure after loss. That can be so helpful, since grief often leaves us feeling unmoored, without any structure at all.

This last ritual of grieving, sitting shiva, is something that dates all the way back to ancient times. 

In the book of Job, the parable of Job: Job loses everything. He loses his family, his wealth, his livestock, and his health. And in the rubble of all that loss, three of his friends come to grieve with him, to sit shiva, for seven days.

In the second chapter of Job, we read this: 

When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah. They agreed to come so they could console and comfort him. When they looked up from a distance and didn’t recognize him, they wept loudly. Each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.

This is a deeply moving depiction of grief. Of grieving with someone – accompanying them in the ocean of grief.

Throughout our Scriptures, we see how people have grieved in diverse ways, ways that show us that there is no right way to grieve, even if we live now in a culture that only shows us one or two ways to grieve.

David’s psalms are poems and songs of raw emotion. He processed his grief with creativity. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, grieved by providing and nurturing. Jesus grieved the death of Lazarus by weeping, taking his time, even when he had the power to raise him from the dead. And the disciples processed their grief together – some of them did – after Jesus was tortured and executed.

All of this so human and so holy. 

The Persian Muslim poet Hafiz wrote: do not surrender your grief so quickly. Let it cut more deeply. Let it ferment and season you, as few human or divine ingredients can. And the French novelist Marcel Proust said: We are healed of suffering only by expressing it to the full. Grief is a universal, human experience. And grieving takes a thousand different forms.

A Grieving Exercise

So I want to ask you some personal questions today. Let’s spend a minute in silence. I hope that, in this silence, we can begin to wade into the waters of grief.

Sit comfortably in your seat. If it makes you feel less self-conscious, you can turn off your camera for this bit.

Close your eyes. If you can, rest your feet in a way that connects you to the ground. You can rest your hands on your lap in a gesture of openness or cross and hold your own arms, giving yourself a comforting, loving embrace.

Breathe normally, and picture yourself at the edge of the ocean. Now, listen to these questions, and take some time to answer them honestly. Grieving is human, and in this time of so much loss and uncertainty, you may find your grief to be a passable puddle or a deep and endless sea. 

You’ve heard about different ways that people process grief. What resonated with you? Which ways of processing grief sound like something that would help you? What do you need in order to process your grief?

Do you need the company of others? Or a creative outlet? Do you need to hear the voices of your loved ones and wail and cry with them? Do you need the chance to finally say what you’ve wanted to say all this time? Do you need silence and solitude? Or do you need to be comforted? Do you need assurance that somehow, it’s going to be okay, even when nothing seems okay? Do you need time?

Sift through these options and those I haven’t named. Bring to the front of your mind what you need in order to grieve. Maybe you’re worried that what you need is impossible. Or very hard, at least. Even so, put it in words.

And then, if you’re feeling very brave, make yourself a promise that you will tell someone, this week, what you need in order to grieve. Share that with a trusted loved one, maybe someone here in this community. Make a commitment to let someone know so that you can begin to wade out, safely, into that ocean that may also contain mystery or beauty or life. 

If you’ve turned off your camera, you can turn it back on if you’re willing and ready. I hope that you’ve envisioned something specific. And if not, that’s okay. We heal when we’re ready, the same way that a finger can’t heal when a splinter’s still just below the surface. 

But the lessons from Scripture, from parables and gospels and psalms, and then lessons from around the world – these all tell us that we are not alone in this experience. All of us are grieving. And all of us have permission to grieve. You have permission to grieve. Amen.

Next, we have Tim Warrow sharing a beautiful song with us called Be Not Afraid. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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