You are who you are when nobody's watching — Stephen Fry
And sometimes you are who you are when somebody is. This is the lesson I'm learning right now, this summer, in the midst of my chaplaincy internship. Clinical pastoral education. It's a nice way of saying face your fears, your demons, your grief, your shame, your anger, your __________. It's about introspection and intraspection. Knowing self, knowing the other, and knowing self through the other. It's a blessing, and it's a curse, all at the same time. There are moments of joy, minutes and hours of sorrow, sudden onsets of grief, and lingering unnamed emotions in abundance. This has been my life the last month, and it will continue to be my life for the next six weeks. With the way things are looking, chaplaincy may very well be my life for years to come. It's a thought that is both invigorating and horrifying.
We all have grief, but sadly we live in a culture that is terribly grief-avoidant. We don't talk about death until it happens, and when it does, we try to get the conversation over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. We find the lingering grief of someone who has suffered a terrible loss awkward, and instead of sitting with that person, risking the upsurge of our own pain and past, we respond out of anxiety and fear, forcing them into a painful fortress of solitude, left to face their grief alone.
The truth of the matter is that we need grief in order to experience wholeness. Life cannot exist without death. The two are inextricably interconnected. Yet often we treat them as conjoined twins, willing to separate them, holding onto an unspoken hope that the twin of death might itself die, or at least fall to the wayside. We want life without death, joy without sorrow, relationship without complication. But it's impossible, so we cling to the illusion that it is.
A short while ago, while I was on-call at the hospital, I spent several hours with a family whose loved one was rapidly approaching death. They beckoned me to pray with them, allowing me to hear stories about this person they held so dear. What surprised me most was how their pain awakened within me my own, specifically the pain of not being at Nanny's bedside the night of her accident. For the longest time, I thought I was glad that I wasn't there that night. I didn't have to deal with her broken, shattered body. I wasn't forced to endure the sterile smell of a hospital room, the incessant beeping of machines, or the sight of her bloody, swollen, mangled frame. Most of all, I was not expected to bear the burden of being the one to tell the doctors to remove technical support.
...Technical support... it sounds so... detached
I always called it life support. I'd never heard it called anything else until my first week at the hospital. When I asked my colleague why we called it technical support, her answer both made sense and surprised me: We don't have any control over life. All we deal with are the machines. God's the one who gives life, and takes it away.
I never thought of it that way. Life is in God's hands, not ours. It made me angry because it reminded me that, on the night Nanny breathed her last, Mom was the one who had to sign those godforsaken papers allowing the hospital staff to remove the intubation tube, turn off the ventilator, and mute the heart rate monitor. I've always sensed that she felt immense grief for having to make that choice, and I wondered if anyone in that room reminded her of God's role in those moments, in that room. Did someone tell her God was in control? Did someone hold her face in their hands and affirm the love she was showing Nanny by turning the machines off? Did anyone give her permission to be pissed off at the one who ultimately controls life and death?
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. [Anyone] who lives fully is prepared to die at any time — Mark Twain
My grief — well, it's complicated, just like everything else about me. But I'm cherishing these few weeks where I have explicit permission to let my grief surface. We all have triggers. There is always some amount of something within us waiting to bubble up just beneath the skin, just outside the periphery. When we let it out, uncage it, free it, we realize the power it has to free us. When our grief escapes, it doesn't run off. It doesn't immediately retreat into hiding behind the bushes or around the corner. It stands in front of us, gazing into our eyes. "Look at me," it says, "and know yourself." Choosing to embrace the gut-wrenching pain of grief takes more courage than many of us are reared up to muster, but it's there within each and every one of us. It doesn't take a lot. Just enough to say, "There you are." When the triggers come, notice them, and if you can—if you're in a space and time in which you feel safe to do so—let them work their magic. Find some tissue (or a pillow to punch), and meet your grief.
Dostoyevsky said, "The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!" Grieve, and let God draw near.