April 27, 2021

Grief observed: a very personal experience shared by all humanity

“The women came to the tomb at early dawn, taking the spices that they had…

“The women came to the tomb at early dawn, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the angels said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen.” Luke 24:1-5.

We often read this scripture at Easter and imagine the women running away from Jesus’ tomb with great excitement — connecting all the dots of all the times Jesus promised that He would suffer, die and then rise from the dead. Scenes of the sun rising, the birds singing and the sweet smell of lilies and flowers permeate our imagination and to some degree offer consolation to the looming emptiness of the tomb.

But I think the truth of grief is deeper and harder than our imaginations can comprehend. And that’s a good thing that we can’t imagine it all at once for maybe we would not be able to survive the revelation.

I’m pretty certain that the women left the tomb confused, frightened, and possibly even angry. They had come to the tomb to serve Jesus one more time- to pay their last respects to his tortured body and lay him to rest with sweet herbs and rituals which were customary for their religion and culture. But the body of their friend was gone and instead, these luminous men were questioning the women’s rituals and explaining things to them that the women could not yet understand.

“Why seek the living here among the dead?” the dazzling creatures mused.

Why indeed? Because it was the last place they left their friend and now Jesus wasn’t even there. The tomb was empty — just like their broken, grieving hearts.

In the next verses, Luke describes how the angels at the tomb reminded the women all that Jesus had said about rising from the dead. “Then the women remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” (Luke 24:8).

We like to think this happened quickly — that the women were given an instant and profound revelation that sped up their comprehension of the resurrection of Jesus and it all just made sense. We replay the scenes in our minds with the accuracy of the inspiring films that depict the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in two hours. It gives us the perception that the followers of Jesus quickly passed from grief to joy at the revelation of an empty tomb.

However, the verses which follow have much more to say about the space in between the revelation of the empty tomb and the disciples’ understanding that Jesus rose from the dead.

“These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11)

The disciples didn’t believe the women’s story about the empty tomb and the angels announcing Jesus’ resurrection. They couldn’t because they were in the early stages of grief. Their friend, their leader — the man of miracles — died on a cross only three days before.

Grief is a complex and difficult emotion because, in truth, it’s not an emotion at all. Grief is a visceral and instinctive response to loss — letting go of someone we love. Grief is often described as coming in waves — like the constant ebb and flow of tides beating against the shore. We lose a part of ourselves with every wave, like the rocks and shells carried out to the deeper waters. And when the waves recede, it leaves behind tiny treasures of shimmering beach glass and precious shells scattered across the tideline.

The past two weeks since our beloved friend Keri passed, so many friends have expressed grief as coming in waves. Her passing reminded me of all the loved ones who have gone on before. The last two weeks I’ve been recounting my own sisters’ deaths and my parents and dear friends who have died — most of them in the past five years.

The death toll from COVID in the past year in the U.S. alone is approaching 600,000 and 3 million worldwide. The toll represents so many lives lost and millions of others pummelled by these waves of grief.

The world is grieving.

Even nature seems affected by human suffering as a cold snap of winter threatens hopeful spring blossoms and clouds the warmth of the sun.

The great mystical writer/philosopher of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis wrote a profound book to grapple with the death of his wife. In “A Grief Observed,” he describes the ebb and flow of stages of grief:

For in grief, nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment?’

These waves of grief are to be observed and respected lest they take us totally off guard and sweep us off our feet, tugging us out to vast waters like the powerful undertow beneath them. We need time and empty space to grieve our loss of loved ones and of the lives left behind.

My husband and I said goodbye to our oldest golden retriever, Madias, no less than three times over the past few weeks. He collapsed one night and for 24 hours we carried him in and out of the house until we could get him in to see our friend who is our veterinarian. He rallied after she gave him pain medications and it seemed like his arthritic spine just needed some rest. The hardest part for “Mr M.” seemed to not be the pain, but rather that we had to bench him from playing ball.

A few days later, blood tests revealed a suspicious underlying disorder, possibly a blood cancer that was affecting his ability to make red blood cells and to clot. We said our goodbyes again, only to see Madias rally with a new medication — some Chinese herbs which the veterinarian gave him as a palliative approach that could stabilize him and give him a quality of life for the time he had left.

After the third goodbye and a really fun time at Easter with all Madias’s kids and dogs around, we stopped saying goodbye and just enjoyed our time with our dog. While we were still being cautious, we tossed M the ball from time to time, let him steal any blanket and snuck him lots of treats.

Just shy of 12 years old, this dog’s zest for life was palpable. We’ve always said our beloved “Mr. M.” was not much of a dog person. While he enjoyed the companionship of his dog friends, humans — in particular, our opposable thumbs which he was certain God gave us so we could throw him the ball — were more important to him than food.

We nicknamed M “the golden receiver” because he could anticipate my husband’s passes and weave through any obstacle to catch the football in mid-air. We raised Mr. M from eight weeks for 18 months when we returned him to Canine Companions for Independence to be a service dog. We cried when we turned M into CCI only to have the trainers call us three months later to tell us he was released from the program because; “all he wanted to do is play ball.”

We joyfully brought him back home and shouted “release!” when we opened the gate to let him run around the barn in our big backyard. To our surprise, he ran with purpose and direction to a spot behind one of the large garden berms filled with wildflowers and ornamental grasses. From there he emerged with his long-lost football. We hadn’t seen it for months since he left our home for CCI. We laughed many times over the past 10 years as we imagined Mr. M in the kennels at CCI thinking, “gotta get home to Steve and my ball.”

Just hours before I finished writing this column on grief, “Mr. M.” died peacefully on the dog bed beside my bed. I woke up because I heard him panting and I thought he needed to go outside. But when I turned on the light, I realized he couldn’t be moved anywhere in time. I woke my husband because I knew the time had come.

We gave Madias comfort and kisses and thanked him for the life he gave our family. In a final act of love and respect, he tossed his head up into my husband’s hand as if to catch one last ball from his beloved quarterback and friend. Madias took his last breath and was gone as I whispered one last command; “Madias, release!”

Mr M. died at home, on his bed, in our bedroom, where he’d slept beside us for all these years. It was his time and on his terms. Because it was the middle of the night, we wrapped his body in one of the blankets that he frequently stole from the basket and tucked his football between his paws. I lit a vigil candle on the small altar in my bedroom and moved the dog bed beneath where the glow of the candle shone off of his golden head.

We’ve lost dogs before, but never at home — never in the intimacy of our bedroom and in the quiet of the night. As I write this, the light is beginning to break and soon the rooster will crow to greet the dawn. I am grateful for this silent space in between- the saying goodbye and the letting go of our faithful, furry friend. For soon it will be time to lay his body to rest.

Shortly before I went to bed last night- I saw angels walking around inside our house. I describe this as “seeing” when in truth it was more of a picture in my mind or a transparent overlay from my imagination gracing the sight before my eyes.

They were visions of light and yes, I “saw” wings. I acknowledged their peaceful presence and for a moment, I wondered why they were here. Then I remembered they are always here — but for some reason I was now made aware.

I didn’t think of the angels again until a few hours later, after Madias passed. Then I realized I saw them because the veil that hangs between this life and the next was lifting as our beloved dog was passing. He was going home to play ball on the shores of heaven, with our precious loved ones who have gone on before us.

As the angels asked the woman at the tomb, they ask each of us now:
“Why seek the living here among dead?”

And we answer, “Because it’s the last place we left them.”

But then like they angels at the tomb, these muses inspire us to look beyond what we see and to remember the promises of eternity and the hope of new life found in Christ.

When we remember those promises and look beyond —like the women at the tomb and the disciples along the way — we believe and then we see.

In between the loss and the remembrances of our eternal hope is this holy space we call grief.

Grief is best observed as one meditates at the beach while taking slow and deliberate breaths. We focus on and appreciate the ebb and flow of this tide. As the waves meet the shore and flow back out to the sea, so grief waxes and wanes, bringing us closer to eternity on heaven’s shore.

Madias at the beach. Photo: Steve Benthal

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