Grief, You Lied To Me

story.jussilaMy dear friend, Jacquie, shared this provocative expression with me when we reunited last week.

It leapt off the page of her journal, written in the wake of something tragic that had happened in her life. I felt privileged to be one of very few to hear it. She commented that the ‘lie’ for her was that she was utterly alone in her grief. As she has gradually shared what happened with others, however, she has realized she is anything but.

As I reflected on the “lie” for me, it was that grief will end and tears, cease. Well, I suppose this won’t happen, at least here on earth. Anne Lamott suggests that only ‘grieving can heal grief.’ Avoiding it, she continues, “robs us of life.” Grief may never end but ends up giving us two beautiful things, “softness and illumination.” And I would add a third, joy.

Grief is like spiritual angioplasty or as she describes, an “indoor shower.” This shower can spill out of our eyes – at times, in torrents – and can pummel us to the floor. Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum wrote in her diary, “Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the (Nazi death) camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.”

David Standl-Rast says Etty stood for “gratefulness against all odds”. And she lived out another expression by Thich Nhat Hanh that Jacquie shared with me the evening we were together, “Faith is the path to the transformation of affliction.”

Are grief and gratitude mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Grief is necessary for healing, and suffering, the birthplace of compassion. Faith is an instrument of these transformations, a gift, a mystery- something which we cannot think, or talk, ourselves into. It is like what Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dag Hammarskjold suggested, “I don’t know Who or What put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes.”

I love the idea of progressive faith. And faith engenders hope, which we simply cannot live without.

A missionary in Haiti and friend, Bethany, offers this, “You believe your life will be one way . . . and then the Lord paints a new picture. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the masterpiece that the rest of the world can. Sometimes it’s just a mess of color on a canvas that looks nothing like what you asked for. Giving up the future you plan, for the future He desires is no small task.”

Bethany’s words inspired a vision of my life as a palette – not the kind in a paint-by-numbers kits with compartments and lids snapped shut, but open and accessible – ever ready for the brushstroke of the Divine. We must trust that His strokes can surely create a masterpiece from a mess.

Giving up our plans, however well-intended, is a type of loss, one which can help us achieve what Oswald Chambers describes as “absolute oneness with Himself.”

Oh, the sweet consequence of grief- grief that is itself the bitter fruit of searing loss of someone or some . . . thing. For some of us, loss and ensuing loneliness cut so deep, according to Hafiz, our need for God becomes absolutely clear. Chambers writes that God doesn’t ask, “do you want to go through this loss of a loved one, this difficulty or this defeat? No, He allows these things for His own purpose. The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better and nobler men and women, or they are making us more critical and fault- finding, and more insistent on our own way.”

Etty Hillesum’s faith transformed her affliction. She was a testament to the “delight of despair”, to quote Chambers yet again- knowing that if she was “ever to be raised up, it must be by the hand of God.” And God, as per Robert Ellsberg, was an “explicit partner of her internal dialogue:” prayers that were, indeed, without ceasing.

After reading one she wrote, I desire to utter it every day until my last, even if it’s merely in the silence of my heart:

“God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much, I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. I sometimes imagine that I long for…seclusion…But I know that I must seek You amongst people, out in the world. And that is what I shall do. I vow to live my life out there to the full.”


– Caroline Watkins

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