This week I received a rather urgent letter from a longtime friend whose wife died recently. They both seemed so well when I saw them together in late August. Her illness, rapid decline, and death were a shock to her family, especially to her dear husband. In his evident distress he asked for a recommendation on what he might read or do to get over his grief. The tone of his request was intense, the outpouring of his mind and heart read as agitated and chaotic. And although he didn’t really identify his problem in the letter, it seems he’s trying to speed grieve. He wants to know how to be over his pain, what to do to make his loss stop hurting. He wants to be done with his grief - right now.
My first thought was this – slow down and take a breath. One of the anomalies of grief is that it will not be rushed. Really, there’s no such thing as speed grieving. Poet Henry Taylor wrote, “He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.” To get better, to mend, and finally recover from our grief - even if we never completely heal from the loss of our loved one – we must do the work of grief. And the truth is, grief is work. It’s lonely work and, for some of us, very arduous work. It’s anything but once-over-lightly, speedy work.
I remember sitting in my reading chair a few days after Leighton died consciously aware that I was in shock – I was dazed by the full force and effect of his death and realized in that moment that I was going to have to go through grief. I knew instinctively that there was no way around it, and though I had no idea that pain and sorrow could be so deep or last so long, I knew that the road ahead would be long and hard. And over many months that turned slowly into years, I worked at grief – it was hard work, thankless work, yet work that was critical to my very survival.
Grief forces us to sort through the emotions that engulf us after the death of one we love at the same time we’re working to reconcile ourselves to our loss. There’s nothing at all that's speedy about this daunting challenge and, for some of us, it’s enough work just to get through each day. But if we take the time – or make the time - to encounter our grief, wrestle it down, and understand it, we get through our grief even as we go through it. This is our reward for doing the work of grief.
Some who’ve experienced the death of a loved one choose simply to hang on mindlessly until grief is over. This is a passive form of speed grieving. What’s interesting, though, is that we do not actively enter into grief – whether we like it or not, grief enters into our heart and soul and spirit. It becomes a unique power and presence in our life that comes and goes, ebbs and flows. Yet imperceptibly we learn to live alongside our grief as we work toward adjustment to life without our loved one. This happens gradually, over time, never in a burst of willful speed. And ultimately we incorporate grief into our life – it becomes a part of who we are even as the death of the one we love and now grieve forever changes the landscape of our heart and soul.
And so, dear friend, breathe, pray, find some solitude, slow down, listen to your heart, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NRSV).
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Psalm 43:5 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the quiet of your spirit.