I love the TV show Monk, and one of my favorite episodes is “Mr. Monk gets a New Shrink.” In this particular show, Monk’s psychiatrist retires, and when Monk learns the news, he experiences in about one minute the five stages of grief identified by Kübler-Ross: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and (5) acceptance. Just when the viewer believes Monk has successfully navigated through his grief, Monk immediately repeats the cycle, being caught in a grief loop.
While Kübler-Ross did not intend for grief to be five rigid stages that we experience in a linear fashion, I must admit there is something attractive about five stages of grief. Similar to Monk, we walk through these stages and then it is done. Over. Finished. Complete. We wash our hands of the whole grief affair and move on with life.
If only it was that simple . . .
Today some experts in the area of grief lean more towards the idea that Grief is a Journey [see Kenneth Doka’s Grief Is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss]. I remember when I first heard this concept, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I detected something within me that resisted it. The idea bothered me.
Granted, if we view grief as a journey, it opens up and gives freedom to how people grieve. It embraces the uniqueness of the person and the uniqueness of their relationship with what was lost. It resists a timetable. It refuses to demand closure but recognizes that twenty years later something may emerge like a song or a smell that may bring a pang of grief. Although people commonly wonder if they are going crazy in the nascent experience of grief, the view of a grief as a journey embraces the craziness of grief and says, “No, you are not psychologically unstable. This is the path of grief.”
However . . .
I do not like it.
There . . . I said it.
If grief is a journey, not an illness to be cured, it means unpredictability, uncertainty, and ambiguity. I, for one, am not a fan of those elements. I prefer order, organization, stability, clarity, and predictability. If grief is an illness, then it can be predictably cured. If grief is in linear stages, there is order. There would be clear boundaries around grief, and chaos would be avoided. Like the ticking of a clock, I could plainly see the minutes passing one second at a time. I could chart my way, like the reading of a map.
However . . . grief seen as a journey is not that way. Rather than a map, the image is a pile of yarn: a tangled mess. As they enter into the wilderness of chaos, the bereaved are vulnerable. There is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure [see Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability in Daring Greatly: The Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way].
They say that we grieve because we love. I would add that grief and love share the trait of vulnerability: certainty is absent; there is no definite security; and there is a lack of protection. Both involve unpredictability. Both have a certain amount of danger. Both abandon the covering of one’s emotions. When we love, we will grieve. When we grieve, we have loved.
As a Christ-follower, the thought of love directs my attention to Jesus Christ’s embodiment of love and his own vulnerability. I did not grow up hearing about Jesus’ vulnerability. My experience in the church centered on Jesus’ victory: his resurrection. The hearing of Jesus’ victory over and over fosters a tendency for his followers to talk about their own victory through Christ and very little about the journey through vulnerability towards victory. We spoke frequently of Jesus’ miracles and his divine nature while saying very little about Jesus’ victory occurring through vulnerability. Contrary to vulnerability’s uncertainty, I heard phrases of certainty such as, “I know God will do this or that.” In essence, we did our best to cover up our own vulnerability. We attempted to know what we did not know, calling it faith, rather than trust in the One who did know. In the process, some of us ended up confusing certainty with faith.
Due to my experience of an emphasis on Jesus Christ’s divinity, I vividly recall when I came face to face with Jesus’ humanity by reading a Max Lucado book. At first, I wondered if perhaps the author had gone too far. Jesus having a cold? Jesus having a boyhood crush? Jesus hitting his thumb with a hammer? I was not certain I liked Lucado making Jesus Christ this human. Yet, I was strangely drawn to what Lucado was saying. Why? By seeing more clearly Jesus’ humanity, it made a connection with me. It pulled me to Jesus even more.
As Jesus Christ walked this earth as the human-divine one, he was vulnerable. Paul writes of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2, “who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.” By becoming human, he made himself susceptible to humanity’s violent whims. He took a risk by becoming human. He was emotionally exposed as he loved through the act of his being. In essence, Jesus embodied vulnerability. By becoming human, he connected with us through his own vulnerability. We talk about being healed through his wounds. Could it be that part of this healing occurs because he is vulnerable in that he could be wounded, allowing us to connect with him at the place of woundedness which produces healing? No matter how we may view it, the victory we have in Jesus Christ transpires through his vulnerability.
There is a lesson here for us. Many times I have heard people focus on the end, the victory, and ignore the uncertainty, the risk, and the emotional exposure in the journey. If we center on the victory, we negate the journey of getting there, and we deny part of our human experience. I have witnessed this when Christians attempt to comfort those who are grieving by jumping ahead to the victory. As Christians, we say phrases like, “He is in a better place,” “At least she is not suffering anymore,” or “One day you will see your loved one in heaven.” While all of those may be statements in which the bereaved Christian believes, they are statements that leap over the journey of grief and its vulnerability, to victory. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that we grieve but not like the rest who have no hope. We grieve. Yes, there is hope, but we also grieve. Let us be careful to not deny our own humanity, our own vulnerability. In the same way Jesus makes a connection with us through his vulnerability by becoming human and walking through life’s journey, we too make a connection with those who are grieving at the place of our vulnerability. In a manner similar to the way Jesus’ connection with us brings about our healing, so too when humanity connects with each other, there is healing and eventual victory.