When I was just six years old, my grandfather, my beloved Paw Paw, took his life and so my journey with grief began. I didn’t know how to grieve and as you can imagine, my family was upside down. I held it in and made sure I was well-behaved and responsible.
Meanwhile, I looked for my Paw Paw everywhere, in grocery stores, malls, in every passing car and at church. I didn’t understand the mystery of death, how a person can be here and then just not. I still don’t understand it. His death led me to ministry. I didn’t know much at age six but I knew if I could help anyone not take that path, I would.
Six years ago today, I began another, more grown up grief journey when I lost a friend, co-worker, treasured ministry colleague with no warning. One day we were happily engaged in ministry and planning Sunday worship services, the next he was gone, leaving an entire congregation reeling, and me, devastated and suddenly in charge of a whole church. Once again, I held in my grief and was a well-behaved, responsible pastor. It was all I knew to do.
Holding it in was not that good for me. Six months later to the day, I learned I had breast cancer at age 49. Later, I melted in even more spectacular ways. It was all grief.
Doesn’t it seem like we should all be better at dealing with loss? Everyone dies. Our lives are inexplicably interwoven with people we love. We have all lost loved ones. Why is grief so hard?
Grief is hard because it rubs up against sad, angry, guilty, mixed up, real life feelings. Sometimes we are not so good with feelings. Grief is also messy. It really has no time-table and it pops up at the strangest of times. For a while, I was a grief counselor and I remember a woman sharing that after her husband died, she misplaced a shoe in her own home. She found herself sobbing as she searched for a simple shoe. Later she realized she, like the shoe, had lost her sole/soul mate. A lost shoe triggered her sobs. Grief is also hard because we all grieve on different timetables from one another and we are all grieving the unique relationship we had with the person. No one else lost what you lost.
Listening to all those grieving people taught me that the most important thing about loss is to just go ahead and feel it. If you keep it in, it will circle back around to hurt you. We are not meant to keep grief in.
Go ahead and express what you’ve lost. Let the messy feelings come as they will. Don’t judge yourself because it is weeks, months, years or decades later. Cry. One of my supervisors once told me he believed our tears actually baptize our feelings. Baptize: to bless or sanctify, to make holy, to infuse with grace and God’s spirit.
This morning, six years after losing my friend, I cried as I’ve done lots of times now. I cried because so much shifted on that day. I cried because I still don’t understand the mystery of death. I cried for his family and for the church that lost him. I cried for the way my life changed that day and the challenges I’ve had since then. Each tear, baptized a messy feeling. Each tear felt like it cleansed a wound. Each tear not just a tear but a bit of Holy water, embedded with grace, forgiveness and a peace that passes understanding. Thanks be to God for the healing power of Holy tears for little girls, and big ones.