I lived over an hour away when my Dad died. I remember driving with my husband on the long bridge over the Atchafalaya Basin, the longest wetland swamp in the United States. Time stretched as long as the swamp. When we finally made it to my small Cajun town, I found nearly one hundred of my extended family pouring out of the front door of my parents’ house and onto the porch. My Dad had nine brothers and sisters who all have many children as well as cousins and friends. The grief was palpable. It hung in the moisture-laden air. It was hard to breathe. I felt each moment deeply. I felt each moment for years and years as the grief came and went on its own schedule.
Grief and suffering are hard. There is no one way to breathe in the density of the experience. We all grieve and suffer differently because we are all made individually by a vast and complex God who loves us. Though the pain, sadness, and sense of loss seem all-enveloping, God is with us.
St. Catherine of Siena reminds us that “God is closer to us than water is to fish.” Though grief wraps us, God is wrapped inside of the grief with us. Sometimes, though, we forget the presence of God. Many situations provide prime foundations for this forgetfulness: anger with God, frustration with the sense of being abandoned by the person who has died, frustration with starting anew without the person who has died, impatience with the slowness of grief and the pain it brings, etc. Seeing God beyond these situations can feel insurmountable.
I remind myself in situations of grief and suffering of St. Ignatius’ first annotation in the Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius begins by explaining what he means by exercise. He says that the spirit can be “exercised” in the same way that the body is trained through physical exercise. How does the physical body train—one day at a time, one workout at a time.
This, I believe, is how God calls us to grief and suffering as well—one day at a time, moment by moment, prayer by prayer, breath by breath. Some days we engage in anger, frustration, and impatience, but, on other days, we come worn and torn to the spiritual exercise of breathing in grief with God. We remind ourselves that God is as close to us as water is to fish and bring our grief to God.
We are invited to expose our emotions bravely to God, not rushing to “fix them” too quickly or “clean them up” for God. We look deeply into the Divine with honesty about what we feel, even when it isn’t nice or easy. Remember, in the story of Martha and Mary and their brother (and Jesus’ friend) Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” Jesus does not hide his emotions, but feels these emotions deeply, ranging from great joy to deep sadness. Jesus does not judge or dismiss our emotions as some might; Jesus weeps with us.
We have been conditioned well to understand that building physical strength and endurance takes lots of practice and exercise. We do not speak as openly concerning grief and suffering. We think that it is an on/off switch in which we suddenly “get over” or through. Our language is truly insufficient concerning grief. It is not a path “over,” nor is there a place on the other side. The journey is more like walking in rainy or snowy weather. There is no place that we reach in which we control the weather. The weather is the weather. The grief and suffering comes as it wills. And, like rain or snow, it is dreadful at times and utterly beautiful at other times. We are called to expand patience within and for ourselves as we experience the rain or snow of grief.
In the journey we also must remember to be present in moments that bring deep remembering and celebration. We can ask God to help us remember God’s intimate closeness. We are not alone in remembering and celebrating. God is closer to us than water is to fish. In our remembering we are literally “re-membering,” bringing parts of our loved ones back into our lives in a new and cherished way. There is no need to force feelings. Celebrating with tears, sorrow, and anger or joy, gratitude, and festivity is all celebration, an action of marking an important event. St. Ignatius believed that God speaks intimately in our memories. Savor every memory. The memory is a gift from God.
Bring your grief and suffering to God
Express your deep emotions to God
Be patient with yourself
Remember and celebrate the moments
Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash.com