The Good Grief

Christmas tree with ornaments

As Becky Allender recently reflected, during the holidays we are often confronted with loss and grief in a deep, profound way. Here, Andrew Bauman, a licensed mental health counselor, writes about his own experience with sense of loss during this season and about how we can honor grief even when it contradicts the expectations of those around us.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
–Anne Lamott

Grief is paradoxical. Seems to be the only thing that makes me feel better is to initially feel worse. We all grieve and cope with loss differently, yet we are all told what is normative or expected of us in the midst of our pain. Whether it be American culture, our religious subculture, or the unsaid norms within our own families, each demands something of us when tragedy suddenly strikes.

Despite all of these contradictions of expectation, I do have the luxury—or possibly curse—of knowing what I feel. There is no paradox within my own broken heart: I have done a lot of grieving over the past few years. I have given myself over to the sacred practice, and the work has made me highly in tune with my body and what it needs. This is great, and it also sucks.

I must invite grief to baptize me, for the hope of liberation is in the waters of the pain. But I have written about inviting the sacrament of grief before, and this is not about inviting grief; it’s about what to do when it has already arrived.

I lost my dear sister-in-law the spring of this past year to cancer. It happened too quickly—Christmas last year we celebrated her remission, we played games, we laughed, and we told stories of the future. In March we heard her cancer had returned. A few weeks later in April I held her hand in the hospital as she was on life support and stood next to my brother making the impossible decision to pull the plug. It felt cruelly quick, not for her sake but for ours.

I was not ready to say goodbye.

I was not ready to say goodbye, to never talk with her again. It felt like a sudden car accident, and I still feel the whiplash. At her funeral service the pastor told us to wipe the tears away knowing that she was now in heaven. I cried harder, not because she was in heaven but because she was no longer with us.

With the holiday season upon us, I acutely feel the weight of her absence. Her laughter at my inappropriate jokes, the beauty of her heart and voice. I wanted to hear her wheeze when she laughed. We would only see each other once or twice a year as we lived across the country, so my heart feels ready to reunite this Christmas; my mind knows I will not.

I am struck by the obscenity of her death. Historically, society tells us that holidays are time for celebrating, not mourning. My reality is that this is the time that holds the most grief, because it is when her absence will be most absent. But instead of looking for external permission to feel what I feel, I must offer myself permission first; differentiation from the expectations of others is right for me and my process.

Instead of looking for external permission to feel what I feel, I must offer myself permission first.

The paradox of grief.

Does this mean to obey my own body and betray others’ expectations of me? Or betray my own heart and invite the blessings of false praise? I know the answer: the social stigma will hurt, and I am tired of pain, when all I want is to be loved and held.

I want to dance with death, to make peace with the obscene. I want to tear my clothes as the Jewish mourners, or follow the Hindu custom of shaving my head and beard as a way of marking the loss. I want to mark my body to make me feel more human. I feel this deeply, and I must again submit to what the grief requires of me. What does it mean to be good stewards of our pain?

God is here, in this aching darkness.

I am not in fear that my grief will overtake me. I have found that the more I enter it the less power it has. The more authentic I am with the sadness, despite cultural expectations, the more my soul is unrestricted. Not liberated from the grief, but liberated within the grief. Meaning, I still feel deeply sad, an ache within my heart, but the ache becomes deeply integrated with my joy.

May we all give ourselves permission to follow our mourning and allow the goodness of grief to baptize us unto new life.