Be Kind to those who Sail the Stormy Seas of Grief
Today, we remember our dead, the beloved ones of our church community, and those who have made a particular impact on us. Like many churches, we reserve the first Sunday of November as a sacred day of remembrance. For me, lighting those candles on the altar every year is profoundly meaningful as I remember who they represent and what made them so special. I like that we carve out time for this observance because we live in a culture that sweeps the subject of death under the rug and promulgates unrealistic expectations about keeping a stiff upper lip and sailing through the grief process in short order—a year, they say. Ha! Nope.
Most cultures do a better job than ours of being candid about death and supporting people through grief. They venerate ancestors, rehearsing their stories, letting their memory live on, and appreciating the wisdom they passed down. They don’t squeeze it into a single annual hour of worship but weave it into the fabric of their lives. I like that Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations are becoming more popular. It’s not morose and gloomy but a celebration of all life. For an introduction, see the Disney movie Coco .
Whether we live or die, God’s got us.
Today we embrace the faith claim found in our scripture passage that whether we live or die God looks out after us. We need not be afraid, because no matter what lies ahead of us after this life, God’s got us. There are so many ways people envision what happens to us after we die. From a literal heaven in the clouds to our energy being absorbed into the energy of the cosmos to decaying and becoming part of the earth and its growth, death, and regrowth cycles.
No matter what happens next, we can all affirm that our beloved departed remain in our memories, our hearts, and the legacy they left. And there is something about remembering them and telling their stories that makes us think about what we will do with the time we have left. How will we live, by what values, by what principles?
But there is no embracing resurrection without acknowledging death and loss. Consider how the candles we lit are symbols of an eternal flame of God’s care, the fragility of life, the hope of finding our way through the dark, our solidarity with those who grieve.
Waves of Grief
Since, at some point, we experience losing someone close to us, it’s good to know what to expect ahead of time. Grief has no end point, ending in a year, as some suppose. This poem by Donna Ashworth (who lost her husband) suggests it is an expansive sea.
YOU DON’T JUST LOSE SOMEONE ONCE
You lose them over and over,
sometimes in the same day.
When the loss, momentarily forgotten,
and attacks you from behind.
Fresh waves of grief as the realisation hits home,
they are gone.
You don’t just lose someone once,
you lose them every time you open your eyes to a new dawn,
and as you awaken,
so does your memory,
so does the jolting bolt of lightning that rips into your heart,
they are gone.
Losing someone is a journey,
not a one-off.
There is no end to the loss,
there is only a learned skill on how to stay afloat,
when it washes over.
Be kind to those who are sailing this stormy sea,
they have a journey ahead of them,
and a daily shock to the system each time they realise,
they are gone,
You don’t just lose someone once,
you lose them every day,
for a lifetime.
The poem rings true from what I’ve experienced walking with people though the valley of the shadow of death for 38 years of ministry. And it rings true personally. I lose my brother all over again at every family gathering, or when thinking about how to care for our aging parents. I lose my mentor, whenever I hear some juicy Methodist gossip or when I could use his gentle guidance. I lose my grandfather all over again when my grandson hugs me around the neck as I endeavor to carry on the legacy of close grandfathers and grandsons. You don’t lose someone once.
Grief is like Sea Glass
Pastor Susie and Carolyn Remley led a grief support group where one of the readings employed the image of grief as sea glass. A piece of glass—dangerously jagged and sharp—rolls in the waves and tides and somehow over time it becomes less sharp, something you can pick up and see its beauty.
Recognizing that we’ve all lost someone again and again, let us endeavor (like the poem says) to be kind to those riding the waves of grief, learning to float. You never know what triggers a sudden lightning bolt tearing through their hearts.
The scripture says, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.”
There is no denial of the hurt, the waves. We all have to find a way to deal with it. One thing I’ve learned is that stuffing it inside doesn’t work. It refuses to stay bottled up and works its way out in one form or another. Psychologists tell us that unresolved grief is the source of many disorders, from chronic depression to addictions to an unquenchable internal rage—it finds an expression.
If you trace a person’s addiction to its origins, you often see that things start to go off the rails shortly after a significant loss. Whether it’s a loved one’s death, a breakup, a dream that gets out of reach, or significant changes like a relocation, or job change, grief is part of the process.
Sometimes, we find ways of self-medicating or distracting from the pain. From drug and alcohol abuse to hoarding to shopping to compulsive gambling, grief is usually part of the larger story of how they wound up traversing that dangerous path. No one sets out to become an addict. It’s what happens when people don’t know what to do with the pain. So, when we find someone acting out, remember to be gentle. Grief is likely its root is grief.
So, we use our faith resources to deal with grief healthily. We deepen our connection to God and each other, we remember the good, we remember to live with purpose, and we let that which was best in our cherished loved ones live on, drawing out that which is best in us. We find comfort in worship, in finding reasons to praise and be grateful. We trust that God will sustain us when waves of grief crash into us.
We grieve, but not as those who have no hope, says the scripture.
Grief is a sign of the blessings of love already received.
Christian author, C.S. Lewis, after losing his wife said,
“he pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”
Author Jamie Anderson said,
Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in the hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Again, from poet Donna Ashworth: You don’t move on after loss, but you must move with. You must shake hands with grief, welcome her in, for she lives with you now. Pull her a chair at the table and offer her comfort. She is not the monster you first thought her to be. She is love. And she will walk with you now, stay with you now, peacefully. If you let her. And on the days when your anger is high, remember why she came, remember who she represents. Remember. Grief came to you my friend because love came first. Love came first.” https://donnaashworth.com/2023/02/04/love-came-first
Stitching our lives with color.
As we gaze upon the flickering light of these candles may our hearts be warmed because in God’s care, something of our loved ones lives on, cared for by God and carried in our lives.
“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
― W.S. Merwin
May what we do be stitched with the colors of those who have gone before us. May be faithful, humble, kind to each other.
I want to end with another poem, this one by Ruday Francisco about living intentionally.
A Series of Gentle Reminders
Delete the number
trash the boxes
give the sweaters away.
Stop holding on to things that do not fit you anymore.
They didn’t apologize and you’re still mad.
But what I do know is this a closed fist can punch through a wall;
but you can’t fix the hole until you open your hands.
The past is one of the few things more stubborn than we are.
It will not change
and it does not care if you have a better idea
of how the story should have ended.
Healing begins when you stop
trying to run backwards on the escalator,
and embrace whatever will keep us moving forward.
It’s hard being alive but it looks good on you!
Someone is happy that you exist.
So many things have tried to break you
none of them turned in their assignments.
I think that’s a good enough reason to celebrate.
I heard it only takes one person to be a parade.
The truth is we aren’t here long enough to drag around so much apathy.
Pluck a ream of smiles from any place that has a few extra laying around.
Stash one for yourself and give the rest away
because some of us are chewing on our last spoonful of Hope
and sometimes kindness can feel like a full stomach.
Tell people you love them while they are still here because death doesn’t [always]call before it comes over.
Time will agree to play freeze tag but will follow none of the rules.
Try not to be so hard on yourself.
We don’t know how long we’ll be on this planet
or what we’re supposed to do while we’re here.
We’re all just crashing into each other and trying to fall in love with the collision.
So today in the soft glow of these candles, let us be grateful for those lives who have bumped into ours. Be grateful for the love and blessings we have received and let them flow through you to those who bump into you. In that way the Day of the Dead becomes the Day of faithful living. Amen.