It is one of the oddest things about life that grief is such a lonely place. Abraham Lincoln apparently said that only two things in life are certain – death and taxes. So why, given that death and grief are universal human experiences, is grief such a lonely place?
Well, I think there are perhaps two main reasons. Firstly, that death is still a bit of a taboo. In a society that has blown away every other taboo, there is something about death that we still prefer to deny or not talk about. Secondly, that grieving is a very individual process. There are some common elements to the grieving process, but how we grieve is down to a combination of the circumstances of death, our relationship to the deceased and our own individual characters.
But whoever you are, I think there are things you can do to help.
The first thing is to talk. My mum, when I was growing up, used to think that the solution to every problem was a cup of tea and a talk. I used to think she was mad. What could talking (or tea) do compared to the catastrophe I was facing? But actually she’s right – on both counts. I don’t know why tea works, but it really does.
And talking works too. There is something about our rational brains that needs to process everything and talking is how we do that. We can’t always make sense of it, but at least it helps to understand rationally that we’re facing something we can’t understand.
And if that sounds a bit strange, you have to understand that something like 80% of our brain’s activity is subconscious. You can’t control it, it just just gets on and deals with stuff . And most of the time, it’s fine with that. It gets on with things like breathing and digestion by itself so that you don’t need to think about it. And also routine tasks like driving, which is why you end up at Morrisons, when you were supposed to be going to the doctors. You shouldn’t worry too much about being on autopilot, because you’ve only got limited space for thinking, so you need your subconscious to deal with most of your stuff for you without having to think about it.
So it just gets on with stuff without bothering you. But when something bad happens, your subconscious goes into panic mode and it tries to tell you there’s something that requires your attention. “Boss, there’s something you need to think about here”. And it needs you to respond. Think of it like two buttons inside your brain: there is the panic button that your subconscious presses to get your attention, and then there’s the response button your conscious brain presses to say “it’s okay, I’ve clocked that and dealt with it.”
So when you suffer bereavement, your subconscious knows something terrible has happened, but it doesn’t know what. So it will just keep pressing the panic button, waking you up in the middle of the night, causing you to panic at odd times of the day or making you burst into tears when buying frozen peas in the supermarket – much to your embarrassment and confusion! It will keep giving you as many signals as it can that something is catastrophically wrong until you show that you’ve noticed and done something about it.
So if you don’t process it, your subconscious will just keep pressing that panic button in your brain and you will experience that as depression, or anxiety or lingering sadness. If you talk about it, and try to order your thoughts, that’s what presses the button to the message to your subconscious that you’ve noticed the problem and done something about it. And your subconscious will say to itself “it’s okay. The situation’s being dealt with. I don’t need to press the alarm button any more.”
The trouble with grief is that the problem doesn’t go away, so the subconscious will keep pressing the panic button again and again until the problem stops. And the more tragic the circumstances of our grief, the longer it’s going to keep doing that, but the basic process is the same. Keep acknowledging the signals your brain is sending you and process it rationally. That’s the signal your subconscious needs to assure it that you’re still in control. And that’s what talking does – it processes the situation. You don’t need to solve the problem, you just need to assure yourself that you’ve responded and done what you can about it.
And that’s why talking to yourself works. Your subconscious won’t know there’s no-one there! It will just know you’re talking about it and that’s the response it wants! But of course the reality is that there is someone there. One of the perks of being a Christian is that you’re never alone. And so praying out loud, talking it through with God, also works, on two levels: it satisfies your subconscious and it hands over to God the things we can’t sort – and he always gets to work. He won’t bring back our loved one, of course, but his plans are somehow able to deal even with death. After all, we do worship a God who himself died on the Cross, so he does know what we’re going through and he does have a plan beyond death, beyond terrible suffering and even beyond a situation that seems beyond hope.
Talking about it, with other people, with God and with yourself, will help you to heal and to find a hope to keep you going.
But another gift is tears. We don’t always understand that either. Cry in front of someone and the chances are they will try to stop you crying. People have this mad notion that if you don’t cry, you won’t be upset. But the truth is that you have to carry the pain around with you every waking moment and sometimes you need to put down the burden. If you just bury your grief deeper down, somewhere lonelier, it will just fester. But crying is how we let the pain out and also how we let others share the journey, so it’s a little less lonely. Not everyone can cope with you crying, so spend time with those who can cope with it and don’t worry about letting it out. Bring it into the light and let people share the burden with you. And don’t be afraid to cry quietly with God. Even Jesus wept when his close friend died. You will find him a sympathetic companion.
Talking and crying are two ways we face the reality of what has happened. God doesn’t ever ask us to deny the reality of pain and death. The Bible is full of it. As Christians we worship a God who was tortured, crucified, died and was buried. We say that each Sunday in the Creed. It’s central to what we believe. Faith is not naive optimism. Faith is developed in the cauldron of real life, with all its struggles, problems and pain. We face that reality week by week, but instead of despair, we choose the response of faith and hope.
In the Bible, St Paul tells us “not to grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, do grieve – face the reality of death. Work through your denial, your anger, your bargains, your depression. But don’t do it without hope. The pain is real, but the hopelessness is not – that is just an illusion. There is always hope and if you can travel this road in the company of God and in the company of other Christians.
And journeying in that company will help you to see beyond the brutal reality of your loss to the miracles that surround us every day. And the truth is that every aspect of life is a miracle. The very fact that you exist is extraordinary. Your existence is the result of countless improbable survivals against the odds. From evolving protoplasma, your ancestors have made the right survival choices to avoid hunger, illness or ending up as a predator’s breakfast. They have survived eye-watering levels of infant death and gone on to produce you. Life is a miracle against the odds. The chances of your existence are infinitesimally small. So small as to make you despair. Yet here you are.
You are here, not because you are clever, but because God holds you in his hands and intends good for you. The Bible reminds us repeatedly that we cannot give ourselves life. Only God can do that. And he has. If you are here now, that is no more improbable than the likelihood of him overcoming death.
So do not grieve as others do who have no hope. Do not live your life as though this material world was all there is. Do not believe that the love you shared with your loved one is dead, or that it is all the love you will ever experience. For God has countless miracles for you that will exceed your pain, blessings that will exceed all your sadness, life that will exceed all death.
Process your pain, talk, cry and pray. Do not walk alone. Walk with your friends, walk with God, walk with other Christians. And you’ll find the hope you need to believe that God has in store for us more than we can ever ask or imagine.
God bless you and be with you every day. Amen.
Preached: – Great Strickland, 3 November 2019