They say to refrain from making a major change in the first year after a significant loss. I now wonder if this has to do with grief’s ambiguous nature.
At times, grief is tricky to identify. It may silently slip in and around one’s life without being noticed. As one person said, grief is a shape-shifter (for Star Trek fans, think of Changeling Odo). One does not know the form that grief will take from day to day. It may be overt, such as sobbing, or it may appear in the ordinary, such as a memory lapse.
And so . . . Grief, I want you to know, I am onto you.
When my mother passed away seven years ago, I often saw grief as being similar to a blanket. At times, it tightly wrapped around me, smothering me so I could hardly breathe. During such times, I found myself wanting to yell at the world, “Stop! My mother just died.” Sometimes I would blurt out to perfect strangers, “My mom just died.” On other occasions I would sob uncontrollably alone in my room, or I would remove myself from church due to an unpredictable grief burst that would occur during the song service. At other times grief hovered more ambiguously so that I was simply aware of its presence. It draped over me like a thick fog, permitting me to go about my tasks while letting me know, “I’m still here. I have not left.”
When my father passed away I naively thought, “I know how grief operates. The arduous terrain is familiar. After all, I facilitate grief groups. I have studied you, Grief. I have experienced you in multiple ways with diverse losses. I know what to expect.”
Grief, you caught me unawares.
Where is the smothering blanket of grief? I do not have the intense urge to inform the clerk at the checkout, “My father died.” I am not experiencing grief bursts in church. I was only briefly angry with the world for continuing on as normal. Since my father’s death, my tears about his death have been rare.
I have said in grief support groups that each person’s grief journey is different because each person and each relationship is unique. I have invited grief group participants not to compare their grief journey with others by saying, “She is much farther in her grieving than I am.” I have taught that such comparing fosters individualism rather than a sense of community. Now, here I am comparing my grief journey concerning my dad with my grief journey concerning my mom. In short, I am living out the difference of grief journeys within me.
I admit that for the first couple of weeks I was confused and wondered what was wrong with me. I pondered when the other shoe would drop. When would I start crying uncontrollably?
I was explaining to another person that I was not experiencing tears, and I said, “I am doing okay.” The person said, “That’s good, right?” A flashing red light went off in my head as I wondered what our conversation implied. Do we have expectations about grief and the quantity of tears we shed? Does X number of tears indicate I am grieving appropriately and any number over or under that amount means I am grieving inappropriately? Does one need tears to be grieving? Are signs of grief only limited to such things as grief bursts or feelings of sadness?
While grief is probably chiefly associated with tears, they are not the only sign of grief. That is, grief may not be so obvious. It isn’t only about tears—grief may simply color my world.
Like my new cataracts, grief makes it difficult to see clearly. It is so subtle that I am not even sure to what degree grief is changing my perception. I know grief is there, but it is not appearing in the exact same manner it did previously. In some ways it would be easier if I were sobbing because then I could say, “I am grieving.” But, for right now, grief is more subtle in its influence.
It could be my inability to focus, being easily distracted as I prepare to teach a class.
It could be my desire to sit and do nothing.
It may be my insane longing for ice cream.
It may be my desire to pack up all my belongings and move.
It may be an overwhelming urge to spend money.
While we associate grief with sorrow and tears, grief may be exhibited in fear—what
does our future look like? Is that what I want to do?
It may appear as relief—I am glad my father’s life journey is complete.
It may be showing up as being easily angered, offended, or impatient.
It may emerge as shame—I am not grieving like I should, or I am crying too much.
It may appear as frequent sickness such as migraines or being more accident-prone.
It may show up as increased forgetfulness, such as misplacing items—where did I put those yellow pillowcases?!?!
Yet, one cannot be sure it is grief. It isn’t as if grief announces, “This is me!” It is not a black and white matter, but its presence remains ambiguous in what it is, where it starts, and when it ends; thus, the axiom that no major decisions are to be made within the first year of a significant loss because one does not know the extent to which grief is influencing the decision.
As a Pentecostal, I cannot help but see some parallels with my experience with grief’s presence and Jesus’ presence.
It is a challenge for me as a Pentecostal to acknowledge Jesus’ presence when it fails to be an overt feeling: The joy. The goose bumps. The indescribable sense of love and peace that washes over me. Having had these experiences, I not only long to experience Jesus’ presence in this fashion again and again, but these experiences also tend to be my plumb line.
Because of this, I may have a tendency to place judgment on my prayer life, a church, or a church service based on the frequency or the intensity I have such experiences. I have heard and have said about a service, “That was such a good service. God was really present.” In light of the above conversation on grief, I wonder what am I theologically communicating by these words? Is a church service good because I had a profound experience with God? Like tears can be seen as some sort of baseline for grief, are divine interventions my plumb line of how a church is doing? Am I comparing one service to another (or one church to another) thereby missing the presence of God in and through community? What type of expectations am I cultivating through my language about God’s presence?
I recall a number of years ago that my husband and I were vacationing in another state. A well-known Pentecostal evangelist had started a church, which was quite controversial, and we decided to experience it for ourselves. As we stood in the foyer, elbow to elbow waiting for the previous service to end, very few words were spoken. When the doors opened, people scrambled into the sanctuary. The service focused on personal divine interventions as people lined up for prayer, and many fell to the floor under the power of God. That same evening, we went with our friends to their church, a smaller non-Pentecostal congregation. Although we were merely visitors, there was a sense of community and love as congregants and leaders interacted with each other throughout the service.
Two services. Two different foci. One centered on a divine intervention. The other lifted up community. Both were experiences of God’s presence. The former points to a more classical example of Pentecostalism’s understanding of God’s presence. The latter comes as an invitation to Pentecostals to embrace other ways to experience God which may appear more ordinary. Both types of presence are portrayed in the Gospel of John.
During the time that Jesus walked the earth, the Jews were expecting the appearance of the Messiah. As a Christ-follower, I believe that Jesus was the promised one sent by God, the Messiah, about which the Gospel of John speaks. The Fourth Gospel is quite clear that while Jesus created the world into which he came, the creatures did not recognize their Creator. (1:10). If we read through John’s Gospel, there are indicators that the lack of recognition is in part due to unmet expectations.
In chapter 1, the people see John the Baptist and wonder if he is the Christ. In their questioning, they suggest some of the expectations they had about the Messiah: “Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ?” In chapter 7, they believe that when the Messiah would come, no one would know from where he would originate. Moreover, he would be able to perform supernatural miracles, and he would definitely not be from Galilee! And . . . he absolutely would not under any circumstances heal on the Sabbath (9:16).
Thus, when Jesus came, he did not meet these expectations, and many missed his presence. In one sense their expectations formed a limited view of God: the picture of the Messiah fell only within certain parameters. Anyone that looked or acted differently than their expectations was not the Messiah.
So, while on the one hand he performed miracles, an indication of the Messiah (7:31), on the other hand he appeared ordinary . . . even common. He was human. He came from Nazareth of which we are told (1:46) that nothing good can come from there! People also knew his parents: he was the son of Joseph (1:45; 6:42). Not only that, but he does mundane acts . . . he washes feet! Truly, the ordinariness did not negate whether Jesus was the Christ. Jesus is the Christ who did extra-ordinary and ordinary acts of ministry.
As I consider how my expectations interfere with my own ability to see clearly, I wonder if I would have believed that Jesus was the Christ. Would he have been too ordinary for me? In my current context, I ask myself as a Pentecostal: am I only open to Jesus’ presence through the overwhelming sense of love or do I perceive his presence in the love expressed through a visit from a friend? A post on Facebook? A text? A ride to the store? A gift of a bottle of water? A relationship of a friend?
I am reminded of a parable in which Matthew records, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36).
Holy Spirit, cultivate in me eyes to see the presence of God beyond my expectations—not only in supernatural divine encounters but also lived out in the community of Jesus Christ.