A few months after Leighton died I went to a movie on a lonely Saturday afternoon. I remember I had on my own self-styled version of sackcloth and ashes – a baggy gray sweat suit with a hood that felt like an anonymous cocoon. I sat down and headed south into a bag of popcorn, hoping to find some comfort at the bottom. Comfort food – well, there's really no such thing…
As I waited for the previews to begin, I was struck by a very visual ad for a well-known brand of luggage. As travel images flashed on the screen, the message unfolded: a journey is not a trip or a vacation. Rather, a journey is both a process and a discovery. As a process of self-discovery, a journey brings us face to face with ourselves. On a journey, we not only see the world; we also understand better how we fit into the world. Although I didn’t rush right out and buy the luggage, the final teaser in the ad was powerful. The question posed was whether the person creates the journey or the journey creates the person. In less than sixty seconds, the message was clear: “The journey is life itself. Where will life take you?”
Grief is a journey we had rather not take. With the death of our loved one, suddenly we’re on a forced march through unfamiliar, uncharted, foreign territory. Really, it’s a trek - a walk through the hardships and difficulties of making sense of life without the one we love. When our journey starts we don’t know exactly where we’re going or how long it will take us to get there. There’s no map for the way out of grief. All we know is that our path must lead us away from the darkness of death, through the shadows of grief, toward the light of new life.
To be sure, others have grieved before us, others are grieving now alongside us, and somewhere there’s someone whose grief is even newer than ours. But no one has ever taken, or will ever take our exact same path through grief. Not even our closest family and friends, those grieving the same beloved person we now grieve. Our journey is uniquely ours.
On the way home from work I saw a woman outside walking, pumping her arms quite vigorously, striding along with purpose and intent. Really, though, she wasn’t going anywhere – she was just making a circuit through the neighborhood for recreation and physical fitness. When we grieve, we’re going somewhere – away from pain and sorrow, toward comfort and hope. But the truth is, there’s only one way to go through grief – we walk, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4 RSV).
Some of us imagine that we can “get over” our grief quickly – you may be in a hurry to “be done” with your grief - but really there’s no such thing as speed-grieving. It’s impossible to race walk through grief. We can change the length of our stride – sometimes we do take large steps forward in grief – but everyone goes through the same repetitive motion of putting one foot in front of the other. When we walk, gratefully our direction is usually forward, even if it only seems like one small baby step at a time.
Think about it – when a baby learns to walk it teeters, wobbles, and occasionally falls, most often in place, squarely on its bottom. What’s remarkable is that a baby usually gets right back up – it tries again and again until it finds the balance and equilibrium to stay up and move forward. In grief we do the same - we fall down, we have setbacks, “we get knocked down…” (2 Corinthians 4:9 NLT). Yet we get back up and walk forward with tenacity and courage because we trust God to guide us on our trek through the great unknown of grief.
The long journey through the valley of the shadow of death is the most profound walk of faith imaginable, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NRSV). When we grieve, God leads us faithfully, slowly directing us toward spiritual safety and home. And so we walk on…
“I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Psalm 116:9 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the security of your steps.
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