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Waves of grief

The Reverend Donald Steele

October 31, 2001

There’s been a lot of talk in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks about how people are coping with their feelings. In all of that talking, there have been certain terms and phrases that have been repeated so often that I find that I almost do not notice people saying them anymore. However, when I do notice some of them and when I do stop and think, I find certain of those common terms or phrases to be downright bizarre. Here are three of them, along with some of my own thoughts:

1. The “grieving process.” It would be nice if grief actually followed an orderly process, with people moving through various discreet “stages,” but anybody who has ever deeply grieved a loss knows that grief is, in reality, much more messy than this, without any sense of order or process.

Of course, talk of a grieving process is often based on the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, but her research did not involve grief so much as it involved folks who were diagnosed with a terminal illness. Indeed, when it comes to describing the experience of grief, I prefer the one offered by Frederick Buechner. Buechner likens grief to the waves in the summer surf. They keep coming at you, some bigger than others, some with the force to knock you down. But they pass over you, even the biggest ones, and you can always stand up again.

2. “Closure.” This is a term closely related to the “grieving process” above. I mean, if grief were a process, then you should be able to talk about an ending to the process. However, once again, anybody who has suffered a loss knows that they are not necessarily looking for “closure” or for an ending.

The people who have been a part of our lives continue to have an influence on us even after they die, and that’s good news. My mother died more than 25 years ago, and I’m glad to say that she’s still a part of who I am. And that is why we observe All Saints’ Day in the Christian Church. On that Sunday, we celebrate our ongoing communion with the saints whom we have known and who continue to be a part of our lives.

Buechner likens grief to the waves in the summer surf. They keep coming at you, some bigger than others, some with the force to knock you down.

3. “We have to move on with our lives.” Such talk makes it sound like it is up to us to get life moving again after a tragedy, but the truth of the matter is that life keeps on moving without any effort from us whatsoever. So we can relax a bit.

The weight of moving it all forward is not one that we have to shoulder. We have the luxury simply to be in the present moment. Whether this moment in your life is filled with active engagement or with silent reflection, the world will keep spinning, the hours will keep ticking, your life will keep moving on.

These have not been easy days for any of us. We are all operating with more stress than we probably even realize. And so, we need to keep talking with each other. We need to keep on being patient with each other and with ourselves. We need to remember that life is not a race, but that it is a journey. Let’s take our time.

©Donald Steele

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