Where Grief Lives

February 11, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


I've been thinking about a young, beautiful woman who died unexpectedly and far too young. She had few discernible talents but a real knack for the art of celebrity, and her death caused a flurry of attention that shocked rational people who wondered what she had ever done to warrant such tremendous media attention.

It's not who you think.

However, the death of Anna Nicole Smith this week did remind me of this other lovely young woman and the astonishing amount of attention she received upon her death. I am speaking of Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, whose death I heard about on the night I moved out of graduate housing in 1997, ready to serve my first parish ministry position. My roommate had the television on and I'd stop in for periodic updates. First, we got news of the car accident. Then, the injuries. Then, the death.

And then, the massive outpouring of grief from what seemed to be the entire population of England -- and far beyond. Do you remember the thigh-deep piles of floral tributes outside of Buckingham Palace? Do you remember the endless footage of weeping Brits, and the endless crowds lined up to view her funeral procession?

What was this all about? Was this really about Diana and all that she meant to her people? Or was something else going on?

Watching this phenomenon, it seemed to me that perhaps the time had finally come for the British people to have a communal experience of emotionally open grieving. So characteristically stoic for so many hundreds of years, it seems that that moment in 1997 opened the floodgates for a new response to loss -- one that gave people permission to cry together, to engage in rituals of mourning, and to react to a sad event with honest emotion rather than a stiff upper lip exemplified by the royal family.

In the recent movie "The Queen," in which Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth quite brilliantly, we learn how the queen did indeed try, in the days following Diana's death, to maintain an air of calm dignity and privacy (or as she said, "prih-vacy") in the midst of the hysteria she isn't even aware is going on outside her sheltered walls. In the film, Queen Elizabeth is advised by Tony Blair to lower the flag at Buckingham Palace to half-mast, and to make other public acknowledgment of the loss. The queen responds, quite haughtily, that she knows her people, and that they do not require such displays.

But in fact, "Bess" has badly misread the people of England, and she has not kept up with the emotional changes of the times. Queen Elizabeth, if the movie is a fair portrayal, lives such a sheltered existence that she seems not to understand that we live in a confessional era now, an era where the emotional extremes of private life are played out for public consumption through the entertainment and literary industries -- something that has influenced society, for better or for worse. The queen quickly becomes the target of people's anger as she is accused of being cold and uncaring, and even glad for the death of the woman who brought such negative attention to the monarchy.

Helen Mirren is wonderful as Elizabeth, totally nonplussed and quite injured by the hostility directed at her. Diana was not a royal when she died; why should there be a lowering of the royal standard at the palace? Why should there be a state funeral? She eventually comes to understand what her rational detachment is costing her in public image and in true misunderstanding. Of course she is deeply sad about the death of her grandchildren's mother. It just isn't the royal way to carry on about such things. She has been born and bred to this style of comportment, and it is a difficult thing for her to abandon it and still maintain her integrity.

I was deeply moved by this film, as it reminded me that when it comes to grief, there is nothing rational about it. Those who expect grief to come and go in an orderly fashion will always be surprised. Grief is not rational. If it is repressed, it may manifest sideways as rage or sickness or depression. Grief lives in the body long after the events that triggered it are over, and can be reactivated by subsequent losses. Of all the human emotional experiences, grief is one most deeply feared, because it reminds us that no matter what we do to ensure our security, we are ultimately not in control.

I remember watching the British people on television after Lady Di died and being amazed by the level of agony they seemed to be sharing over this woman none of them had personally known. I watched the faces contorted with tears and the clutching and the sobbing and it occurred to me that this death triggered many other losses that people had never been given permission to grieve. Maybe that's just cheap psychology. But maybe it's true. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. But it makes me wonder, what else can we expect of grief? Beyond the tears, what kind of transformations might we allow grief to lead us toward?

Jake Basso spoke movingly a moment ago of his own spiritual practice that has been a great help in compassionately confronting pain in his own life. (*See below) What if whole communities could engage in this sort of spiritual practice? What would it look like? What could it accomplish?

This question came to my mind frequently during my recent travels in Guatemala, a country that is carrying tremendous collective grief and trauma about the brutal violence of their immediate past.

I ask this also because I am becoming increasing aware of our own society's total avoidance of grief, and politicization of it. It is not disloyal or unpatriotic to respond to terrible things, whatever their complicated causes, with grief. Grief is not an "us vs. them" proposition. It is possible, and even humane, to be able to grieve for a "them." One of the most profound moral contributions of Christianity is Jesus' spiritual teaching to pray for our enemies. Part of praying for the enemy is to grieve with him over the harm that comes to everyone at times of enmity and violence.

I once made a terrible faux pas and laughed when I was in Savannah and someone referred to the Civil War as "the war of Northern aggression." I had never heard the phrase before and I thought she was joking. She was not joking. It hit me like a ton of bricks that this country has never properly grieved that war together-- North and South -- and therefore has been greatly hampered in dealing effectively and conclusively with many of the issues that it raised about our national character and our national vision.

Do you think we'll ever get around to it? And all of the other unmourned atrocities that have been committed among us, both nationally and locally?

Just like individual people carry grief in their private bodies, so do communities carry communal grief in their bodies. As I said before, unexpressed grief may come out sideways, as unexplained rage, sickness or depression. Any community that wants to thrive healthily through many generations must learn how to deal constructively with the grief that is an unavoidable part of all communities.

Having observed many people in grief make meaning of their lives after terrible loss, I have noticed that there are three things that they tend to do in order to move from paralysis to engaging with life again. These three things are (1) first of all, to tell the story of what happened as truthfully and as often as is possible (2) second, to acknowledge what is permanently lost but to acknowledge that life goes on, and even with cause for hope. (3) Third, they getting involved in some cause for social change, something that helps them deal constructively with their loss.

This is what individuals do to deal constructively with grief. Communities can do this as well. The church is one of the most important institutions in any community uniquely poised to help create opportunities for this kind of telling of truth, mourning what is lost, and moving forward to put the energy of grief into action. Justice work is one of the most powerful ways any community can express and transform grief: but to do the work of justice not from a place of distanced superiority, but from a deep desire for healing, honesty, and reconciliation.

If you have never thought of the work of social justice as a spiritually constructive communal response to grief, I hope you will now. I am just beginning to understand this idea myself. If you consider all of our Second Sunday outreach offerings, you will find that all of them have in common a connection to human suffering, and a commitment to the transformation and wisdom that can come from grief.

Finally, I want to say this. We are coming up on the four year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. President Bush has called for a surge in troops. As you know, military families and others in this congregation are holding a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety about the deployment of their loved ones over the next weeks, which means that this community is grieving with them. Let us be strong in this together. Let us be conscious of the fact that whatever our various opinions about this war, it is grievous to all of us, because war is always grievous. I want to say a third time that grief unexpressed can come out sideways as anger or sickness or depression. In coming weeks, let us be mindful of the fact that as we go about our days, we bear not just the concerns, losses and fears of private individuals, but that a communal grief as a community and as a nation -- a grief that must be acknowledged before it can impart any wisdom to us.

I pray that we will stand together, side by side, compassionate in the sadness we all share, and open to the ways that sadness may transform us. Grief lives in the body. It lives in a people. We need not fear it, but we must respect it, and be willing to follow where its wisdom may lead.


*Faith Journey
by Jake Basso

First of all, I am honored to be speaking in this wonderful old building where so much beautiful music has been heard and so many inspirational and uplifting sermons have been delivered.

I heard one such sermon last October and it struck a chord deep within me. The story was about a grieving young mother who had lost her child, The young mother was told that her suffering would end if she could collect a handful of seeds. She was told to collect one seed from each family who was not familiar with the suffering that she was experiencing. She soon found that there was no family who did not know the pain of this loss.

The idea that there is suffering and that it is no stranger to any one of us is not new. We can understand suffering and to a certain extent we may even realize it as the balance to the joys that we experience. Life holds both joy and pain. The full appreciation of our circumstances compels us to acknowledge both aspects of this very human situation.

The insight that was offered in the sermon that Sunday was that for us to deny ourselves the impact of our own suffering can be spiritually, a very damaging practice. That for us to stoically "white knuckle" our way through our sadness and grief is in denial of the fullness of our earthly experience. It is here that the sermon really began to reach me. It was suggested that we should allow ourselves to embrace our suffering as a way to deal with it and see our way through it, rather than hide it away and allow it to fester.

This acknowledgment of our own suffering and the willingness to deal with it speaks of compassion. But it is a very special compassion, it is compassion for ourselves. When we encounter someone who is suffering, we find it almost automatic to be very gentle with them. The twist here is that, when we are suffering it is also okay to be gentle with ourselves. The Buddhists call this maitri and maitri is something that can be developed.

I want to talk today a little about spiritual rebirth and how spiritual rebirth is more of an uncovering of something that is already there, something that is already ours rather than something which must be added on. I can only offer this through the voice of my own experience and the image that most readily conveys my own experience is that of the man who is drowning in water that is neck deep and he only has to stop thrashing about and stand up in order to save himself. At the tender age of fifty-two, I feel that I have begun to uncover something that through stoic denial of my own pain and suffering I have very deftly covered over. This has been a spiritual rekindling and a return to a warmth that I had previously known. The practice of meditation has been very helpful in this effort and has enabled me, the drowning man, to stop thrashing about and begin to stand up.

I am not given to those who would proselytize or attempt here to sway by testimonial. My wish is to present a brief overview, as I understand it, regarding what meditation is and what it does. Meditation can be a life changing and enriching event that is available to everyone. In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, all that it requires is that you sit in a quiet manner, with good posture, and focus on your breath.

One soon finds that this is almost impossible to do. What you first notice is that you cannot focus on your breath because you are way too busy thinking --thinking about this and thinking about that. Essentially, the practice is to let go of thoughts as they arise and return the focus of your attention to your breath.

In doing this, many things slowly begin to happen. First of all you recognize, in those moments when you can focus on your breath, that a gap occurs between thoughts. By recognizing the gap between the thoughts you begin to recognize the nature of the thoughts themselves. Thoughts about the past may be of regrets or of some enjoyable thing we wish we could recapture. Thoughts about the future may be of some plan or scheme that we would like to see accomplished. In any event, it becomes clear that we are thinking about almost everything but the present moment and that the chatter surrounding these thoughts is designed to justify and solidify all of our behaviors. What the meditation does is to quiet the internal dialogue and provide some space to examine what all the fuss is about.

Soon we can begin to see that life is unfolding on its own terms rather than the terms we so unsuccessfully try to impose on it. As we recognize this struggle in ourselves, we begin to see it in others and this is the root of compassion. By slowing the tempo of our mental constructions, we begin to develop some compassion not only for others, but for ourselves as well.

Spirituality is an appreciation for the sacred nature of all of the things of this life. It is a way of living fully without taking anything about our existence for granted. Spirituality is something that we all know and already possess. It is also something that requires an awareness to keep it alive. To ignore our suffering is surely one way to suppress our spirituality.

What I have offered here, regarding meditation, is by no means a fair representation of the work and discipline required to begin to realize the changes in awareness that I have referred to. The meditation practice supported by study of the buddhist tradition is a demanding task requiring significant commitment. That being said, I have found meditation to be a valuable tool to reinvigorate spirituality as it promotes selflessness. It has been my good fortune to find something that has begun to "wake me up". This did not happen a moment too soon.

Thank you for allowing me to share this with you.