Because of the nature of events that precipitate grief, we often understandably believe that the voice of grief is one dimensional – dark and intensely oppressive, and therefore unwelcome in the room. There is no denying that it can feel this way in its sharpest moments. Even in its gentler moments, it’s still hugely uncomfortable. But to try and shut it out altogether after a very real experience of loss, trauma, and/or suffering is akin to trying to go on with a normal quiet evening at home sitting on top of a basement trap door where a strong presence is pounding, vying for acknowledgment, and we go on pretending while our chair rattles that nothing about this quiet evening is out of the norm. In other words, grief will continue to insist on making itself known, despite our best attempts at denial.
We are, I think, often driven by our fear that if we let it into the room, it will overtake the entire space like a giant monster we can never hope to contain. And yes, in the beginning it feels this way. It can be fierce, especially if it’s been stuffed into a tiny box without air for months. It is not a sentiment our society likes to entertain. It has a strong presence, and it stirs thoughts in us about life, relationships, God, and mortality that we very well may have spent much of our life and energy trying to avoid.
But the voice of grief does not have to be the same as the voice of despair, because while it is a strong voice and speaks to us about hard things, it is not the only voice in the room. There is a voice of hope that does not simply dismiss the grief, it joins hands with the grief and lifts our eyes from the temporary to the eternal. Sometimes, if we pay attention, we may find that grief is doing a constant call and response with the voices of love, joy and recollection.
Grief can help refine the voice of joy, maturing it from that of Pollyanna to that of one who is wiser, braver, a bit more grounded in honest reality. Grief has the potential to magnify love where there was once indifference, redefine hope where there was once superficiality, deepen relationships where there were once walls.
Please understand, I don’t seek to romanticize it. I realize grief and relationships are complicated, and I know I’m making generalized statements. There will be days when we tire deeply of grief’s constant challenge and want to kick it to the curb, want to go back to life without it. Sometimes, just as we do with people who overstep their boundaries, we have to speak firmly back to grief and put its voice in its place. Other times we need to listen to where grief is going with its words to find that it is, in fact, taking us through valleys of death only to lead us to new places of resurrection and life, ones only discovered and embraced after traversing through the valley. It is not a straightforward conversation we have with the voice of grief. But I hope we might be heartened to remember that as strong and persistent as it can be, grief is not the only voice in the room, and knowing this can give us courage to allow it a place.
For awhile after a series of deeply heartbreaking patient cases at work, I struggled with some version of survivor’s guilt and thought that because grief dealt with such big, important life issues, it was what deserved my attention the most. I confess, I looked down upon the lightheartedness of others. Other times, I went the opposite extreme and concluded I could only live in willful ignorance and denial because the heaviness was too much. But as I’ve learned to bring all the voices of life together – grief and laughter, gravity and lightness, anger and gratitude, I think I’ve started to learn better how to live with all of them in conjunction with each other, rather than intensely focusing on (or judging) each of them individually.
I am grateful for the work of people like Tish Harrison Warren who’ve already done such hard, timely and beautiful work in writing about wrestling with the reality of grief in prayer. I’m also excited to read of Susan Cain’s forthcoming book, Bittersweet, which also seeks to acknowledge our sorrows and longings as having a valid place in our lives. God knows and loves the depths of us as whole people, and does not ask us to deny the hardest questions we have. I think it is in those places that He meets us most powerfully, but we ourselves have to allow space and acknowledgment, and find perhaps to our surprise that grief is in fact not the only voice in the room. It can have a place too.