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Good Grief
June 30, 1974

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

It has been suggested that a minister on his last sermon in a church should preach about grief. Certainly a minister and his family at such a time experience grief. Perhaps in some sense, the congregation experiences grief at the loss of a minister or, in our case, the loss of two ministers, or the loss of some individuals within the congregation.

The subject of grief is also particularly relevant to me and my family at this time. Just a year ago, our immediate families gathered for a picnic in Stillwater, Minnesota, while we were enroute on a vacation east. Of the people besides us at that small picnic, three died this year. My grandmother at Christmas, Ellie’s father in April after a very difficult struggle, and my aunt who was like a grandmother to me in May. The deaths in this case, the deaths of loved ones, always cause grief and grief work. Grief work, the process of working through grief, the process of assimilating the meaning of death into our lives is never sudden or fast; it's long, it's slow, it's painful. And oftentimes, grief is unrecognized.

Besides the deaths in our family, now comes the trauma of moving. No matter how often a family moves, they're never ready for it. They never adjust to it. Especially when a family has been happy in the church, the home, school and community as we have been, moving is not easy. Moving can occasion grief, like death. In fact, in some sense, moving is like dying for the person who moves and for those who are left behind who watch someone move out of their lives, or move out of a familiar place that they have occupied. It's interesting that surrounding moving are rites and rituals, like funerals. We have a wake. We have parties after funerals— good, happy and healthy customs. All the family and neighbors come. We've had such parties these last few weeks. We've had beautiful parties from the staff and from friends. And last Thursday evening, a surprise party from the youth. That surprised me like I rarely have been surprised. When 60 kids can hold a secret along with wives, children and secretaries that is really an accomplishment. It was a beautiful party. Our moving, like a funeral, is even accompanied by a eulogy—that article in The New Outlook. Wasn't that beautiful? I saw our picture there, but I didn't know who the article was about. I think they put our picture on the wrong article. My wife remarked about the part about where it said I was fun to work with. She said, “I hope they don't ask if you're fun to live with.”

Grief is an experience that is more prevalent in our lives than sometimes we imagine. Grief may be occasioned by the experience of any loss, like the loss of a pet. Do you remember how it hurt when your pet died? Or when your favorite cow was shipped to market? Do you remember when you lost your girlfriend or boyfriend, especially when you were jilted?

Listen to this poem written by a young fellow, a teenager, just after he was shafted. Notice how he grieved and how he expresses his grief. “I feel hurt, Lord, hurt and broken. She doesn't meet me in the park anymore. She doesn't wait for me beside the lake. She doesn't come because she's in love with some other guy, or she thinks she is. Well, he can have her to himself for all I care. But I do care. Lord, I can't tell her that now. I can't even speak to her or sit beside her at the water's edge. Once it was a thrill to talk to her, to touch her, to show her off to others. I was so lucky and so proud. We made promises to each other, secret promises, but she broke them. That other guy made her break them. I wish he were dead. I wish he hadn't gone to our school. I hate him. I know I shouldn't feel that way but I hate to lose her. He made a fool out of me. He made me look like a little kid instead of a man. I feel so helpless now. If only I could have dropped her first, I wouldn't look so weak. Lord, I was so in love with Mary—so in love. Do you know what that is like, Lord, to love and to lose the person you love? Do you know how I feel? But no one must know. I pretend I'm not hurt. I can't tell the other guys. They'd laugh at me. Everyone likes to laugh as long as it's not their head that's being chopped off. Are you laughing at me, Lord? Do you think I'm a silly kid? My father laughed when I told him. He didn't try to understand. No one tries to understand. No one. Help me, Lord, before I'm too old and too broken to love again, the way I love Mary.”

Grief can be caused when the children leave, when they grow up. They go away to school, or they get married. One mother said, “He took all his belongings from his room; the house is so lifeless.” Mother was grieving and she probably didn't realize it. She probably didn't know what was happening to her. She didn't know what was wrong with her. She probably went to the doctor. She probably blamed her husband; maybe they went for counseling. She was grieving.

Retirement can cause grief. After the initial novelty and the initial glamour is worn off, it’s just impossible not to grieve when that very large, important part of our lives, over which we've labored and struggled and had our mind in all these years is suddenly gone. Our recognition is gone like a death. Many retirees are grieving.

Or divorce. We expect widows to grieve. We surround widows with rites and rituals. Her friends and family come and try to assist her to work through her grief. But for the divorcee, we have nothing. Her friends and his friends are usually uncomfortable. They don't know what to do. He or she is left alone. Robert Raines has written a poem about a divorcee. “She's divorced, Lord, closed up with pain, determined never to be vulnerable again. She is so hurt, bewildered and bitter. There he goes to a new woman, a new life. Here she stays with the children, with the house full of obligations and an empty bed. She's lonely, Lord, gutsy, trying to get herself together, trying to be self-sufficient without cutting herself off from people trying to be tough without getting hard. She's divorced, Lord.”

When our children leave, when we retire or move, psychologists tell us grief involves a process, a process that we must work through, a process that involves a dynamic that applies to all of us, a process with patterns and stages that affects most of us. The process usually begins with shock, the temporary anesthesia nature kindly administers to keep us from facing the grim reality all at once.

Then the process of emotion, expressing emotion, usually tears. The tear ducts, the tear glands are gifts from God not to be ashamed of, not to be obstructed, but to be used to release inner pressure. The person who holds him or herself back, the person who is uptight, who refuses to cry is the person who's headed for trouble rather than the one who weeps. Not crying is not a sign of courage and strength; it's an obstruction of the way nature gave us. Just a few weeks ago, I sat on the ocean beach. I watched the waves surge and roll and I felt depressed. I felt depressed like I've never felt in my life. I felt worthless. I felt a failure. It frightened me to feel this way. Then I thought of the deaths, the thought of moving, the uncertainty of moving, and the tears came. I wept like I have never wept in my life, just a floodgate of tears. I realize now that I was working through grief, and the grief process involves tears.

Sometimes the process of grief involves guilt. We feel guilty— what would have happened if I had done such a thing, or what would have happened if I hadn't done such a thing?

Grief involves bitterness, hostility and anger. We lash out. We blame everything and everyone. We become critical of everyone. We wonder what's happening to us.

Grief is a process that involves these kinds of dynamics. It's not a question of whether we will grieve in our lives. It's not a question of whether we will go through this process or not, because we all will. Some people don't always get through the process. They get hung up on one of the stages. We know people who are very emotional. We know people who are very negative, very bitter, always complaining and blaming. Maybe they didn't work through their grief and get to the other side. The question is not whether we will grieve, the question is how will we work through the process of grief.

One of the best sources of help and guidance to me is my favorite book in the Bible, Paul's letter to the Philippians. People at the Philippian church were among his favorites. He loved the people of Philippi, and he wrote his last letter to them. He wrote it from Rome when he was in prison, not knowing what lay ahead. It's a beautiful letter, a short but beautiful letter. He misses them deeply. He's lonely, he’s separated from them, cut off from them. He’s anxious about his future, about what's going to happen to them and to him, and so he writes this letter. Paul is experiencing grief. In some way we can interpret the book of Philippians as Paul's attempt at grief work—working through the process of grief. He uses very emotional laden phrases in this book. He writes, “How I yearned for you all with affection in Christ Jesus. I hold you in my heart. I thank God in all my remembrance of you.” He talks openly about the possibility of his death. He gives them advice to quit fighting, quit bickering and to serve one another in humility. He encourages them to be faithful to Christ, to suffer for him and to stand firm in him against those who would hurt them, and against those who would divide them.

But the overriding note, the tenor of that entire letter is joy. Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord. And again, I say, rejoice.”  Paul dealt with his grief in joy and in thanksgiving. He wrote, “In everything, give thanks.” To deal with loss, to deal with grief as we work through the different stages,  Paul says to go down to a deeper level to undergird the working through grief; go down to the level of thanksgiving, go down to the level where you accept things as God's will. Give thanks to God. Be open to joy and to the peace which passes all understanding. Paul says to think about what you put in your mind, what you put in your thoughts. Think not about what's happening to you, not what has happened, not about anxieties about what's going to happen. Rather, Philippians 4:8, “Think about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is graceful. If there is any excellence, if there's anything worthy of praise think about these things.”

Then Paul describes how he has gone beyond the complaining stage, beyond the bitter stage, how he’s gone through to the state of being content, of knowing how to abound in any and all circumstances, of taking them in joy and thanksgiving. And he says, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I can make it, I can do it because he strengthens me.

Grief strikes us all and grief demands that we go through a process. It is easier and more helpful to go through the process in thanksgiving, in joy and in the confidence that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Rejoice and again I say, rejoice in the Lord. May that be the mark of our relationship. May that be the sign of the way we will meet life, the way we will face all contingencies. Rejoice in the Lord.

© 1974 Douglas I. Norris