Grief and Resilience
Author: The Rev. Dr. Joy Blaylock, Canon Missioner for Discipleship
A few years back, I was asked to give a holiday address to a bereavement group for two years in a row. The first year I said something about my own experience of loss and then the second year I stumbled upon a story about Dr. Elizabeth Kuber-Ross. I find that story helpful now as we engage a pandemic and employ a whole new language with words and phrases like: “social distancing”, “sheltering in place”, “essential workers” and “flattening the curve”.
I'm sure most of you have heard of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the researcher who devised the famous five stages of grief and became known as “the death and dying lady”. What you might not know is that after working with dying people, a lifetime of dedicated service, Dr. Kubler-Ross moved into her dream home only to immediately have the first of what became seventeen strokes. The strokes left her almost totally paralyzed. A hospital bed was set up in the middle of the living room and she had to quickly adjust to a whole new reality.
That resonates with what many of us are grappling with each day: a whole new reality. I think we are experiencing grief right now in what we have loss in terms of social connection and vitality; we also have anticipated grief of all that we will miss in the coming days or years. I go back to Dr. Kubler-Ross because I think her story can teach us much about this time.
What Dr. Kubler-Ross found incredibly frustrating and anger producing was how long the process went on. She laid in the middle of her living room in a hospital bed, and let's just say it: she wasn't happy at all. Her recovery went on longer than she thought it should and longer than she thought she could stand. However, Dr. Kubler-Ross continued to try. She continued writing and adjusting the best she could. She was open about how she felt and many people criticized and judged her for her openness. The collective judgment was that she should be above all of that.
Above what? Being human? Being frustrated? Being limited? Being disappointed? Being sad, depressed, or anxious, etc.? Perhaps we, too, have struggled with the same expectations and experiences in this time?
Many people said of Dr. Kubler-Ross: “Oh, look, she’s so angry and she’s the one who discovered the stages” as if somehow writing about grief and death would keep either at bay. Grief and loss are not intellectual experiences. They are not journeys we think our way through or do in our head. In many cases, our grief takes us for a roller coaster ride. And, like it or not, it is usually our grief that decides on how long it will hold us captive.
As I read about Dr. Kubler-Ross this week, I was reminded that many people don’t understand what you have gone through until they go through a similar loss. In fact, many authors have expressed that it is the first major loss in our lives, really major, that jars us from our reality and demands that we rebuild a whole new frame, a whole new life because we have been changed in our very being.
Naming our grief and telling our stories are going to be vital in our rebuilding, not only today but also in the days to come. As grief counselor, David Kessler, notes: “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint…but what everyone has in common is that no matter how we grieve, we share a need for the grief to be witnessed.” We are called to be witnesses of one another’s grief in this time.
We are also witnesses to what former President George W. Bush said recently in a video: “suffering does not fall evenly.” No, suffering is not falling evenly right now. And though our own grief may preoccupy us, or even stand ready as anticipated grief, we are challenged to pay attention to the suffering of others and to pay attention to the inequality of it all with empathy and with action.
I know this is not easy. This pledge, this awareness can be one that is often heavy laden. As I was walking near the train tracks close to my home recently, I spotted these shoes. The first day I just walked by, paying slight attention. The second day I paused to think about who might have worn those shoes and what his/her story or situation might be now. Did he/she lose the shoes or purposely leave them behind to “walk a different way”? I was reminded of the wisdom from Mary Oliver who said: “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
It is the attention we pay now, the openness to our vulnerability and grief that can ultimately lead us to an attention that matters, one that responds and realizes our inter-connectedness as we strive to be the Body of Christ. It is my hope that as a Diocese we can continue to dialogue about our grief, loss, and even transformations. I am deeply committed to honoring the ways we grieve as well as the ways we adapt and find our individual and communal resilience.
I would like to invite any clergy or lay leaders who are interested in developing a congregational resilience resource for your community to please reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I close with the hopeful words from Bishop Mariann Budde’s sermon given at the National Cathedral on May 3, 2020. Bishop Budde said:
Here’s the point: We are closest to him [Jesus] and most like him in our grief for those we love in their suffering. That’s what propelled him to the cross--his love and his grief for us all. This grief propels us to take on, gladly, whatever is needed to make things better, to wrench whatever meaning we can from this ruined house for love’s sake.
So listen for his voice. It’s the one that rings true--not with false promises of escape but with the real promise to see you through what you did not choose. Lean on him now, because he loves you. He is on the side of making things better, bringing meaning out of this mess we’re in. When you, in your love for others, join in that making better, making-meaning work, you are the embodiment of his love. You are.
There are surely easier ways to live, but there are none more meaningful, and none more needed now.
May God keep your heart soft enough to keep on breaking And your anger turned toward justice. May all that you do now be for love. And may God keep you fiercely kind. Amen.