When we begin the journey through grief we look up one day from our pain and sorrow and find we’re on a new path in life. If our experience of grief begins before the death of one we love, we sense that somehow we’re being forced - against our will - to consider new directions. When we’re waylaid by illness, accidents, and death, suddenly life no longer follows the road we expected. The carefully charted map of our life is turned upside down – in an instant north seems like south, east feels like west. We’re thrown off course by the death of our loved one - life is a constant series of detours until we’re able to regroup and get our bearings.
Over the past few weeks since the death of my mother I’ve encountered the idea of being on a path over and over again in Scripture. I pause almost every day, at least for a moment, to consider where I am on the path that leads us through our grief. It’s as though God is speaking to me through a single word, a short word filled with rich imagery and limitless possibility. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:4-5 NRSV). Sometimes this is how God gets our attention, especially when we’re unable to focus on anything other than our grief.
Many of us feel pressured to get through grief as though we’re on a super highway rather than a simple, unadorned path. Often we heap on ourselves the added stress of our intense desire to navigate grief quickly and “be there”. God promises that our patience and trust will be blessed by a straight path with a positive direction, yet there’s no guarantee there won’t be bumps and pitfalls along the way. Unlike other experiences of grief, on my current path I’ve encountered some unexpected emotional byways - the void of incompletion because I couldn’t make a less than ideal relationship end well, the guilt of insufficiency programmed over a lifetime and, not so much the pain of failure, as the paradox of unsuccess. All I can do is acknowledge the pot holes of my grief, pray for spiritual safety, and step around them.
As we move forward in our grief at first we take small steps then long, bounding strides, though our progress is often interrupted by inevitable setbacks. And when we stumble over unresolved issues of the past or something that recalls our pain, we realize we’re not on a paved road but an overgrown, rustic path. Yet when we keep going, putting one foot in front of the other in faith, we’re assured that “The way of the righteous is level; O Just One, you make smooth the path of righteousness” (Isaiah 26:7 NRSV).
We know our path is leading us somewhere, we’re just not sure where. God knows our destination even when we have no idea where we’re headed, “He leads me in right paths” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV). When we follow our path through the darkness of grief toward the light of new life, eventually we arrive at a crossroad. At this turning point in our grief we’re confronted by a life-altering choice: Do we want to hang on to every detail and moment of the past for the rest of our lives, or do we keep the life-giving essence of our loved one alive in our heart forever while we look with hope toward the future? If we’re awash in complicated grief, we’re on an emotional roundabout and miss the crossroad. We may need the help of a professional to find the exit toward our own true path that leads to the rest of our life.
When we leave our heavy load from the past behind and look ahead to the other side of the crossroad, we see that the path beyond leads to our God-ordained future, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11 NRSV). God is with us every step of the way in our grief. God directs our path toward renewed hope, recovered love, and joy beyond our heart’s best imagination.
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Isaiah 30:21 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the guidance of your path. Amen.