I couldn’t breathe in, not all the way. It was too heavy, my heart a dead weight with no room above it. So it was in my mind, at least, on my (many) bad days. Such has been my experience with grief, that particular episode brought on by the end of a relationship after I realized that forgiving infidelity doesn’t mean you have to try to make things work out. This heaviness and can’t-quite-breathe feeling tends to be how grief visits me. It felt much the same when I learned an old friend had suddenly died, and when two dear friends were diagnosed with cancer within a few weeks of one another. Sometimes the feeling visits me at work, which is only natural, since (as a hospital chaplain) I work with the dying for a living. As I accumulate losses, tending to my grief and my heart is becoming an alimentary need – without this tending, my soul starves.
Much of young adulthood is occupied with beginnings. Where is God leading me as I embark on this career? When will I find Mister or Miss Right? We learn to “trust in the slow work of God” through our impatience, but even in this, we trust we will make progress from uncertain to committed, and from being restless while awaiting God’s plan to being restless while our newborn figures out (or refuses to figure out) her sleep schedule. Even when we're disheartened because we're playing catch-up with our friends who won’t stop spamming our Instagram feed with pictures of their weddings and babies and homes, we can trust we’ll get there too, someday.
All this to say, we’re in a time to put life together, and I suspect this makes it so much harder when things are ripped apart. Our friends and our siblings aren’t supposed to get cancer, and at a time when life is growing and expanding, it certainly isn’t supposed to be snuffed out. As a recent reflection shared, once we see the baby’s heartbeat, we’re thinking about diapers and birthdays, not how to tell our newly-excited families about a sudden miscarriage. We get jerked from spring into winter, our well full of joy suddenly is filled with tears. As writer and neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote following his diagnosis with terminal cancer while in his 30s, some losses don’t bring a life-altering “epiphany about What Really Matters”; they hit your world with a life-shattering firebomb. A bright symphony of joy can so quickly turn to dark silence.
My experience of grief has shaped my relationship with God at least as much as the theology I’ve studied and the work I’ve done with the poor. As a chaplain, I walk with people who felt they were just learning to hear God’s voice when suddenly the unthinkable happened and they seem drowned in silence. Good therapeutic boundaries, teamwork, spiritual direction, and clinical supervision allow me to handle a heavy load, but this doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes get spiritual vertigo myself. I had a habit of going to the Our Lady of Guadalupe altar to pray for one particular patient’s continued recovery, and I remember not even being able to look in that altar’s direction after she relapsed for the second time. It felt like the hope in my hands had turned to black smoke. Whatever grasp I had on God seemed to have been a deception. (If you’ve seen Stranger Things, think of when Eleven goes to grasp something when using what in Dungeons and Dragons would be called Far Sight. She sees the object of her longing, but it suddenly disappears as she closes her fingers around it, and she is left traumatized and screaming.)
What I’ve learned, though, is that grief can teach us a lot about God. The pain of grief shows us the depth of our love for what we’ve lost. If it can teach us about love, surely it can teach us about God. It certainly has forced me to throw out many inadequate beliefs, starting with imagining God as an old bearded dude who exists somewhere out there arranging for happenings either in our favor or against us as part of some master plan (that may be Zeus, or the computer opponent in Chessmaster 9000, but it’s not the God whom Jesus reveals). I believe we can welcome grief as a guide, trusting that where there is pain, so too there is love, and that this love can lead us on. Death can put an end to someone’s being in this world, but it can’t put an end to our love for them. Death’s weakness is that the furthest it can cast us is the same place God is, a place we access through love.
Grief shatters the way we’ve thought about the world. As disorienting and painful as this can be, it isn’t necessarily bad. We arrive at God not through figuring things out, but through love. Since love needs no words, we can find God’s empathy and presence even in silence. We can be found by love too: in feeling the deepest abandonment and crying out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” we have none other than the crucified Christ at our side. In the blood and pain, there is hope.
And so I try to not grasp, but to keep my hands open; I try to welcome the pain of grief as it comes, trusting that my joy and sorrow can live together in my soul.
From Khalil Gibran’s “On Joy and Sorrow” -
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air