“Grief makes all things new, just in the way no one wanted.”
My mother died in March 2020. Pastel cards in the mail attempted to say in cursive writing what humans struggle to say in words of any kind. “Your mom was one special lady.” “I wish I could give you a hug.”
I’ll never forget one card. Someone had repurposed an Easter card into a sympathy card. Those early days of the pandemic forced us all to get creative, I suppose. The front of the card trumpeted from jubilant lilies, “Behold! I make all things new!” But inside, next to the words “Happy Easter,” an inventive, if somber, well-wisher had written in pen: “Grief makes all things new, just in the way no one wanted.”
That says it all. Grief is the great innovator, though no one signs up for this kind of change- management conference. It marshals in all kinds of new plans simply by making the old ones impossible. Someone who has spent Christmas day the same way for 57 years suddenly travels to St. Augustine, Florida, instead. Someone who has never opened a bill learns to do taxes. Grief can make people start or stop going to church.
Grief is impolite. It’s that raspy voice at the microphone who calls the question, causing every other voice to stutter, “Well, this is … new.”
But in the fog of grief is a dark energy. A full-throttle engine of survival kicks in, and it can look a lot like courage, even though it feels like fear or an intense allergy to the status quo.
My mother’s death was a train whistle in the night, beginning my voyage to a place I had never been. This trip was different from when I was a college kid – backpacking across Europe with a Eurail pass and a battered Let’s Go book – but the same spirit of “Why not?” was there. I found myself planting a gardenia, hiking a mountain, finding a beach or sitting alone in a sanctuary. These soothing adventures had always been available, but only grief fashioned them into a priority. I was surprised to discover that grief can force a person to do not just what they dread but what they love.
Grief also offers strange freedom. It creates reckless energy in those who have already been wrecked. I noticed after Mom died that whatever got people around me worked up didn’t seem to translate anymore. Daily drama, people-pleasing and posturing became foreign concepts. They were reduced to chatter between people whizzing by on the other side of the glass while the locomotive of loss chugged me along. But I discovered an instant recognition and camaraderie with fellow travelers who spoke the language of mourning.
I suspect most churches are traveling through grief-land in our time. And if that is true, I suggest that instead of seeing grief as something to be stoically tolerated, avoided, explained or theologized, we would do well to listen to it. We would do well to notice its prominent presence in our people, our neighborhoods and our scriptures. We would do well to give it space and time and grace, if only because grief will take what it needs anyway. It has the keys.
And then I bet, like the first Easter morning mourners who stumbled into the risen Lord, like the grief-blind travelers on the Emmaus road who found themselves breaking bread with Jesus, like the disciples fishing away their sorrows who found themselves at breakfast with Christ himself — we too will be startled with resurrection.
Rebecca Messman is the senior pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a parent, pun-maker, poet and preacher.
Reprinted with permission from The Presbyterian Outlook. Read more at pres-outlook.org