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He was not sad that his adult son was gone; he was relieved. But his grief was palpable when he spoke of his young boy, bright-eyed, curious, and affectionate.
Last Sunday I preached on grief and the book of Ruth. It was not one of my better sermons, but I can’t shake the simple idea: there are two kinds of grief. There is the grief for one who has died and the grief for that which is not.
Every one of my conversations this week has seemed to be about the heavy grief of things hoped for and dreamed of that never came to fruition.
Death epitomizes loss, but there is a cultural protocol for death. We ask the widow stories about her late husband. We inquire about the parents of the bereft adult child. We surround the devastated parents of deceased children with constant love and support. We raise funds for the child whose parents die tragically.
But what of the silent grief of which no one speaks? What of the parent whose child is a drug addict? Long ago, that child, like all children, played in a sandbox. What of the spouse who meant the vows spoken, whose beloved left without a word? What of the adult who dreamed of children but ever had any of their own? What of the grown child who no longer speaks to their family of origin, who chooses instead to spend holidays with friends? We hold no memorial services for such broken relationships, such hopes shattered, such dreams vanished.
Lent is a time of inward reflection, a time for discovering what is between us and God—what blocks us from a deep and connected relationship with the one who forever seeks us out and numbers the very hairs on our heads. For many this relationship is obstructed by years of unspoken, heart breaking grief which has had no formal memorial service, no outward recognition.
The deepest healing in my life has come through story: speaking my story, hearing the stories of others, reading the Biblical story. I have long believed that it is in telling our stories that we come to recognize God’s story within our own story and the story of others. (Whatever that telling looks like is not relevant. Some tell their stories without words, others in a therapist’s office, and still others around a camp fire. I often tell my story through the written word.) Grief is a part of this story. Unspoken grief must be told, even if it is uncomfortable.
The stories I have heard this week have deepened my compassion. My eyes have filled with tears and my view of God has expanded. I hope that those who have been brave enough to share their stories of broken relationships, loveless families, lost childhoods, and shattered hopes have discovered God’s presence in their heart aching stories.
There is one story I have been privileged to hear this week that must be told. It is a story that everyone should hear, if only to deepen our compassion and broaden our understanding of grief. I have changed particulars about this story to protect the identity of the story teller.
John’s mother and brother both died of alcoholism. By the time John’s son was a teenager, he was already struggling with alcoholism and depression. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had been in and out of nearly every rehab center in the area. Soon after, John and his wife began attending Al-Anon (groups for families and friends of problem drinkers*). There, through the loving support of others, they decided they could no longer allow their son to live with them unless he was working on his sobriety. “He tried for a while,” John explained, “But then my wife noticed things like her vanilla extract missing. He just couldn’t do it.”
Their son, who they brought back to their home as a newborn years before, left. Soon they learned he was living out in the woods behind a shopping plaza. He had bought a sleeping bag and nothing more. Months passed, then their son called. Could he come home to get a new pair of socks? While their son was in his bedroom changing socks, John heard a blood curdling scream. Then he saw the unimaginable: his son’s feet, black with frostbite and the beginning of gangrene. Months later his son returned home from the hospital an amputee. John and his wife left for a weekend. When they returned home their son was lying on the floor, which was not unusual. Without concern they hauled their son to his bed, assuming he would sleep it off. He never woke.
There was a memorial service for their 35 year old child, but it was small. Few knew their son any longer. Little was spoken about his black toes, his months sleeping behind a shopping plaza. Little was said about how once he had been a delightful child, bright, curious, and filled with affection. No one spoke of his dimpled knees when he was a toddler or his shy arrival into adolescence. And no one spoke of his parents’ dreams for him.
John is over 90 years old. He buried his son over 30 years ago. The grief is overwhelming and ever-present. He admitted that he has to consciously tell people that he had two children, not just his living daughter. When my eyesfilled with tears at his story he said, “Few people know. I decided you were safe.” I knew that the sermon he had heard a few days before somehow gave him the permission to tell me of his unspoken grief. He was not sad that his adult son was gone; he was relieved. But his grief was palpable when he spoke of his young boy, bright-eyed, curious, and affectionate. His long ago dreams for his son still haunt him.
We must speak our grief. Grief is not only associated with bodily death, but also with the death of our hopes. When we are honest about such grief, we allow others to be honest as well. And when we are brave enough to speak our grief, we make room for God to enter, to share the story, and to be with us as we seek after new dreams and act on new hopes.
*Learn more about Al-Anon http://ma-al-anon-alateen.org/ or http://www.al-anon.org/
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.