The following sermon was shared at the July 30, 2017 worship service at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
To be a parish minister is to bear witness to loss and grief in their many forms and permutations. To be a parish minister is to companion…YOU…through your many losses, through your grief. It is a strange knowledge to acquire.
Having decided to preach on this subject, I wondered to myself why you would come this morning, what you hoped to hear. I have heard from some people that they would not attend today because they don’t want to hear this sermon, and I can understand that. To grieve is to become tired of grieving.
I think there are at least two reasons for you to hear my thoughts this morning. One is that you are grieving, or have grieved, and there is some helpfulness in knowing the landscape you are traveling. We none of us like to travel without a guide.
The second is that learning a little more about grief and loss will help YOU be a better companion to others, a better friend, a better relative, when someone close to you experiences a loss. This too is a good reason to learn.
Here is what I know.
We experience loss and grief all the time, in a hundred different ways. We tend to think automatically about death, the loss of someone we love, naturally we think of that first. But every change in our lives brings a loss. And we grieve constantly. We grieve for how things aren’t the way we think they should be. We grieve for relationships that fall short of what we wish they were. We grieve across the years as our bodies change, and change, and change again.
Almost anything you would come to my office to talk with me about will have an element of loss and grief to it.
Even our greatest joys bring with them loss and grief. Retiring from full-time work is at once a great joy and great sorrow—the joy of leaving work walks hand in hand with the grief of losing one aspect of identity, the loss of certainty around one’s purpose. Parents celebrate the birth of children and simultaneously grieve the loss of freedom. We celebrate children growing up and grieve when they leave the simple joys of childhood behind. Teenagers moving away is both joy and sorrow.
Even at our times of greatest contentment and happiness, we will remember previous sorrows. I observe that sometimes we suppress our difficult emotions when we don’t have time or energy to deal with them, and then they appear when we DO have time and energy to feel them. So sometimes it’s just as everything in life feels like it’s going good that we’ll remember something unpleasant or difficult or sad, because it’s when we’re content and well that we finally have the emotional energy to face and to feel those difficult emotions.
So that’s the first group of thoughts I want to share: We experience loss and grief all the time, in many different ways. Even when happy things are happening, we are often still grieving.
Here’s what else I know:
Grief is a slog. It’s a long, hard slog. Understanding grief helps a tiny little bit, but it doesn’t actually make it any lighter or shorter or easier. Grief is exhausting. It gets boring. You want it to be over, but there’s no shortcut. And it’s not linear. It doesn’t get a little bit better every day, onward and upward. In fact, sometimes it gets harder the more time passes. And you think, why won’t this go away? When will this get easier? When will I feel better? If you come to me in your grief and ask me these questions, I’ll tell you, I don’t know. And I’ll tell you: All you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.
What I tell people who have suffered a loss is: Please remember to eat something and to drink water. I think that is the best advice that I give. Eat something, drink water, and put one foot in front of the other.
I also say: Watch television. Go to the movies. Anything that helps you pass the time and takes your mind of things. Give yourself a break.
If I asked you, What’s hardest about grief? I think each person here might have a different answer, because so much depends on who you are and what’s hard for you. But I can tell you that ONE of the hardest things is that we are not good in our culture at acknowledging grief. And as time goes by, we stop asking how people are doing. We start acting like things must be okay, and we expect people who have experienced terrible losses to act like everything is okay. And it’s that pressure to act like everything is okay that becomes it’s own really difficult thing.
I will tell you something that is vulnerable for me to share: I still REALLY grieve the death of my cat in January of last year. Over a year ago! It still makes me cry. And that feels vulnerable—embarrassing—because…I know that the death of a pet is to be expected, and it’s not anything like the pain and loss of those of you who have lost loved ones. I know that. I don’t go around talking about how sad I still am over the death of my cat.
I would tell any of you not to be embarrassed by grief. We feel what we feel; we don’t control what we feel. But we still somehow imagine that grief should always make sense and be orderly and contained.
Grief does not always make sense. It is not orderly. It is not contained.
Sometimes in grief we will feel angry; angry for the loss, angry for the ways our lives are forced to change. Sometimes in grief we will feel relieved: relieved that someone’s suffering is over. Relieved that complications are gone. Sometimes in grief we will feel afraid; afraid that life will never be good again. Afraid we’ll never laugh. Afraid that everything good is over now.
Sometimes people cry and cry; sometimes people don’t cry at all. Sometimes people return to their life routines easily; sometimes they struggle to resume those routines.
Grief does not always make sense. It is not orderly. It is not contained.
So that’s the second group of thoughts I want to share: All the things we experience when we grieve are perfectly normal, whatever they are. That grief is hard and boring and tiring and confusing. That each of us will experience grief differently from one another, and it’s all okay.
Here’s what else I know. I hate to tell you—I’m so sorry to tell you—I don’t think grief ever really goes away. It changes. It changes shape. The sharpness of it softens. Parts of grief give way to joyful memories of love and happiness—those parts break off and fall away, so carrying the grief is not so heavy. But grief, I observe, stays with us. We are always the people who have lost what we’ve lost. We are changed. We are never the same again.
And then every loss we experience reminds us of every loss that’s come before. In grief, we remember the last time we grieved, and the time before that. Like Russian nesting dolls, grief within grief, no grief the same as the one that came before, but all of them there, all the sadness of our lives together.
I think sometimes that if we could make a list of every single loss we’ve experienced in our lives, and if could know that about each other, then…THEN we would understand each other truly.
So that’s the third thing I want to share: Grief makes us who we are. Grief makes us who we are.
Even though we all experience loss and sorrow in our lives, we don’t always know what to say or how to act when someone else experiences a loss. When you experience a loss, I will warn you that sometimes other people will say strange things, or unhelpful things, or sometimes even hurtful things. They just don’t know what to say or what to do. And they are remembering their own losses, and their own pain gets in the way of offering good support.
So this is the last group of thoughts I want to share: my advice to you when you are offering support and condolences to someone you know:
Don’t say that you know how they’re feeling. Trust me, do not say this. No matter how much you feel you connect with and understand the loss of the other person, it does not comfort them to hear you say that. Each loss is unique. Each love is unique. Better to say something like, “Your loss reminds me of my own loss, and how painful it is. I’m so sorry.”
Do not say “It will get better” or “You have a lot to be thankful for” or any sentence that starts with “You SHOULD” or “You WILL.”
Nobody here would ever say that something had happened according to God’s plan. Likewise, do not say that everything happens for a reason. Do not say that time heals all wounds. Do not say that the deceased is in a better place now.
When comforting the grieving, it is better to be a listener than an advice-giver.
Know that sometimes the grieving person wants to talk about their loss. The best gift you can give is to be a good listener.
But also know that sometimes grieving people just want to hear you talk about what’s happening in YOUR life, or what’s happening in the news, all the usual things. Because they are living with their grief all the time, and sometimes they want a break. The thing to do is to ask: “Do you feel like talking? How can I support you?”
It’s also okay to just sit in silence. What a gift that can be, not to need to fill the space with words.
Practical help can be so welcome. Simple things: shopping for groceries, running errands, helping with insurance forms or bills, taking care of housework, going for a walk, going to lunch or a movie. So much can be really hard when you’re grieving. Everything can be a little foggy, a little overwhelming. It’s good to offer help, even if it’s not accepted. It helps people to know they’re not alone.
And remember, loss is just as hard months later, even a year later. Once things have “settled down” right? That can actually be the hardest time. Keep reaching out. Keep offering support. Keep listening.
Support through grief can be incredibly important and helpful. We will be starting a grief group here at Chalice within the next month or so. The group will meet for a limited number of sessions, 6 or 8. Please let me know if you are interested, and I will keep you posted about when the group will start and when it will meet.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know that loss is part of life. That life is often unfair. Often painful. We do not expect everything to be easy and good all the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t have questions or doubts. But it does mean that loss doesn’t necessarily threaten our understanding of how the world works. Loss doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us, or that we’ve done something wrong and are being punished or tested.
Painfully, loss is part of life. Not only that, but loss is part of love.
I’m sad about my cat because I loved her. I miss her.
We grieve because we were lucky enough to love. Lucky enough to hope. To dream. We had joy. Connection. And eventually, sometimes, if we’re lucky again, we find comfort in the memory of that love, that hope, that dream.
Whatever losses you are carrying this morning; whatever memories, painful or joyful, rest in your heart; whatever you’ve heard this morning that touched you or left you cold, please consider that I think we are lucky to have each other, lucky to have this community. Because the last thing I want to share with you is this: However hard grief is to bear, it is even harder to bear alone. And you are not alone.