Gathering the Graces: Good Grief

September 16, 2020

This month’s blog series is “Gathering the Graces”.  St. Ignatius invites us to ask God for a grace each time we pray. This month, blog contributors will share stories about the graces God has given them and where God is leading them.

 Flies appeared out of nowhere, black, confused.  Six buzzed, anxious behind my kitchen sink as I filled the electric kettle for pour-over coffee.  As water came to a boil, I began shooing them out of the kitchen toward the balcony door.  Steam rose. Thoughts swirled.  At least a dozen more flies were creeping around the sliding screen door.  Unexpected tears welled up.  All I could think was “Good Grief!” 

Thus began a challenging weekend.

You may be surprised to be reading about a fly invasion and grief when our September “Into the Deep” theme is “Gathering the Graces.”   “Grace” is a typical translation from the Greek word charis, frequently used in the letters of St. Paul, that we typically understand to mean unmerited gifts or favors from God. In this context, perhaps St. Ignatius is a bit audacious when he instructs us to ask for the grace we seek.  However, these Saints also know we can trust God to provide what we actually need in the form and sufficient measure to serve us best.  These days as I pray through my Examen desiring to notice God’s presence through attending to my feelings, I sometimes struggle to receive and give thanks for all things as gifts when they come with a powerful undertow of grief and sadness.

A round of emotional tug-of-war started the day before the flies. I had trouble falling asleep. After a restless night I knew I was tired, but had not yet identified the depth of my sadness.  Flies materialized hour after hour. I continued to execute my counter-invasion strategy.  They were attracted to the light, so I partially closed the curtains to draw them toward the door.

As the day passed, I tried sticking to my weekend routines – prayer, laundry, cooking, ‘stopping by Amazon’ to purchase a few household items – but I couldn’t get myself down seven floors and outside for a walk.  I had a growing awareness of a vulnerability-driven anxiety vibrating at increasing speed.  Normally kept safely tucked away, I began to feel a bit like the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge wobbling toward collapse (watch here).

A simplistic explanation in freshman engineering classes is that the bridge collapsed because of forced harmonic resonance.  More precisely, “moderate winds produced aeroelastic flutter that was self-exciting and unbounded.”  Without a “negative damping factor” the amplitude of the oscillation continuously increased until the bridge dramatically collapsed. 

I thought the fly-crisis was over that evening, but it was only the sun going down. They were back full force Sunday morning.  One moment while escorting the files outside the sun illuminated their true colors.  Iridescent blue and green bodies shimmered with aeroelastic flutter, desperate for release. 

Those who have crossed a grief bridge know that the journey is unpredictable.  Like agitating trapped flies, just a little nudge left unattended has the power to amplify our emotions to debilitating levels leading to collapse. 

Francis Weller, in the preface to his book, Wild Edge of Sorrow:  Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, identifies “two primary sins of Western Civilization:  amnesia and anesthesia – we forget and we go numb.  These two sins account for an amazing range of sorrow.” (p. xx).  Weller suggests, 

For the most part, grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential part of being human.  Grief becomes problematic when the conditions needed to help us work with grief are absent.  For example, when we are forced to carry our sorrow in isolation, or when the time needed to fully metabolize the nutrients of a particular loss is denied, and we are pressured to return to “normal” too soon.  We are told to “get on with it” and “get over it.”  The lack of courtesy and compassion surrounding grief is astonishing, reflecting an underlying fear and mistrust of this basic human experience.  (pp.xvii-xix)

We are experiencing a great deal of death and dying during this pandemic, without the usual support.  Death of loved ones we can’t properly mourn.  Former ways of working, schooling and communicating are passing away daily.  At times like these the ‘enemy of our human nature’ wants to leverage the separation, making the darkness attractive, tempting us to despair, tricking us into thinking social-distancing is the same as physical, unduly separating us from receiving support from others.  Others are deceived into thinking the pandemic has come to end and we can return to business as usual.

Grace allows me to name my grief, and acknowledge my reliance on faith in these unprecedented times. Weller proposes that “We must restore the healing ground of grief.  We must find the courage, once again, to walk its wild edge” (p.xix).   While we understand charis as a free gift from God, the word also has implications of power.  Praying for grace is also praying for spiritual power.  I continue to pray for the grace and power of fortitude.

Grace sometimes only appears in the smallest of ways when held in grief’s tight grasp, but it allows me to continue to pray, in search of perspective and goodness.  When black flies turn up again, I will take a deep breath, draw the curtains for a time, patiently shoo their anxious, buzzing bodies towards the light, and bless their hidden beauty carried away in the breeze.

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

Go Deeper?

Photo by Trevor McGowan on Unsplash.

 

Jenéne Francis is an aspiring contemplative in action who finds writing creative non-fiction and short fiction a fruitful spiritual practice. She also enjoys adapting and offering the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for days of reflection and retreats. In her professional life, Jenéne serves as the Provincial’s Associate Pastoral Assistant for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus supporting retreat houses, spirituality programs, parishes, hospital chaplains, and other Jesuits engaged in pastoral work. Having spent 17 years at the Procter and Gamble Company, followed by 20 years in ministry, Jenéne gets great satisfaction by offering her engineer’s head and poet’s heart for “the greater glory of God.”

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2 Comments

  1. Mare

    It is important to speak of grief and how to navigate through it particularly now when what community we have is diminished due to Covid isolation. I have a problem with this part of your message, Jenene.

    “Francis Weller, in the preface to his book, Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, identifies “two primary sins of Western Civilization: amnesia and anesthesia – we forget and we go numb. These two sins account for an amazing range of sorrow.” (p. xx). Weller suggests,
    For the most part, grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential part of being human. Grief becomes problematic when the conditions needed to help us work with grief are absent. For example, when we are forced to carry our sorrow in isolation, or when the time needed to fully metabolize the nutrients of a particular loss is denied, and we are pressured to return to “normal” too soon. We are told to “get on with it” and “get over it.” The lack of courtesy and compassion surrounding grief is astonishing, reflecting an underlying fear and mistrust of this basic human experience. (pp.xvii-xix)”

    Calling amnesia and anesthesia….forgetting and going numb…sins and then putting them in a context that shows them to be survival defenses confuses and concerns me. I don’t understand how they can be sins. Can you address this?

    It is hard enough to face insensitivity and intolerance for the pain of grief. Forgetting or going numb might be what allows for survival. Unfortunately, no one tells us that Grief will wait until it is passed through or that tears literally cleanse the body of toxins.

    Reply
  2. Jenene M Francis

    Dear Mare, please accept my deepest apology for not responding to your comment sooner! I didn’t see your post until now and am SO sorry for the delay. I sense you have much experience with the grief process. Grieving surely takes its own time and benefits from tending. I agree with you, as does Weller, tears are essential to the process. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection and invitation to reflect on the aspect of sin.

    My understanding of sin is that which turns us away or distances us from the love of God. In difficult moments, forgetting or going numb might well be a gift or grace enabling us to survive a heartbreaking loss, or give respite until we can begin to face the hard days ahead. However, over time ‘the enemy of our human nature’ may leverage amnesia and anesthesia to keep us away from God in our grief, separating us from care, consolation and healing.

    Our culture is happy to promote quick fixes. Netflix is an easy place for me to run when I’m looking to avoid or escape, offering both numbing and forgetting. I sometimes joke about “better living through chemistry,” but I’m deeply concerned for loved ones I see self-medicating with alcohol. I don’t joke about the value of prescription medication in combination with counseling to help us along the path of healing. I have personally benefited from this support at times.

    We have a long winter ahead. While care from family, friends, spiritual companions and communal rituals still isn’t available in the same ways as before, my hope is that we continue to offer one another encouragement, creating emotional space and sharing the gift of time to accompany one another in our losses through the ups and downs without trying to rush or fix, remaining present to God’s love and desire to be with us in grief.

    With gratitude, peace and prayers, Jenene

    Reply

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