As best as I can tell at present, the “work of grief” is to engage the feelings and questions as they come. The hard work of grief then is to not push them away or bury them. Feel it all - love and loneliness, sadness and serenity, fear and hope. Entertain all the questions - of where I am and where I have come from? Who am I and who will I become? How did this happen and how will I move on?
I remember the scripture used as a toast at mine and Pete’s wedding, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has planned for those who love God.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) History tells me this verse is true. I would never have conceived what God had planned for me up to this point and so it’s wholly possible I have yet to conceive what God has planned for me in my future.
Sometimes I get caught comparing myself to others – others who have lost a spouse and others who are my age or others who are in similar careers or anybody really. I worry about whether I’m doing things “right.” And of course everyone would tell me there is no “right” way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently. (That’s true by the way.)
The only “wrong” way to grieve would be to avoid the work. Grief work is not easy however and so sometimes putting off the work or taking a break is a form of self care. But ultimately grief has a job to do and it is itching to get to it. Grieving is not an emotion; it is a process. Grieving is a form of excavation.
One of Mateo’s first words was excavator. It sounded more like “ekavater.” He loves all kinds of trucks but we’ve got to admit that the excavator is a cool truck. The excavator has so many moving parts – the boom, the dipper, the bucket, the cab. It reaches. It extends. It’s sharp. And it’s small enough to work around a site. It’s an efficient truck.
I was reading one of his favorite truck books just yesterday that said, “Before we start building, we need to get the ground ready for building. And sometimes we need to take down trees or old buildings. Sometimes we need to make the ground level by adding dirt. The trucks do most of the work at this stage. Backhoes, breakers, bulldozers, and dump trucks work together to excavate the land.”
Yep, that’s the work of grief. Grief will take down trees and buildings. Grief will tear up old foundations. Grief will add new dirt. Ultimately grief will prepare us for new construction.
If I let it, grief will excavate a space within me that is vast, even cavernous. And if need be, grief will whittle a hole just big enough to climb out of myself. Grief will and has discovered new corners, new closets, new nooks within me that would have remained undiscovered if not for courageous excavation in response to loss.
And here is my most recent learning about this excavation process. I have the power to pause it. If I cling to the love I had with Pete, I pause the process of excavation. If I settle into the sadness of missing him, that too will pause the process of excavation. And there is nothing wrong with loving Pete still or missing him. But the clinging to it is what pauses the excavation.
The irony is not lost on me that I am leading a congregation right now who is about to tear down their church sanctuary in order to build another on the same site. The footprint of the new sanctuary is not quite the same so I believe there will be backhoes and breakers, bulldozers and dump trucks who will work together to excavate the land, making it level for the new construction. I’ve promised my congregation a “tearing down the sanctuary” party with chili and beer and a fire pit for s’mores or hot dogs. Most will experience a sort of holy sadness. There will be a recognition that what once was there was beautiful and sacred and meaningful to so many people over several decades. However, along with holy sadness will be holy hope. There will be a recognition that the ground beneath is strong. And we are courageous.
If we let it, grief will excavate a space of which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived.