In my last post where I walked through a small segment of the Book of Job, I mentioned shiva. Shiva, as you probably already knew but I’ll explain just in case, describes the first seven days of mourning within the Jewish tradition. The strict rites of shiva make for a formal, communal focus on the experience of grief. Among other guidelines, one of these traditions requires that visitors to the house of the bereaved sit in silence on low mourning benches. They, as we saw in Job’s three friends, do not speak out of awe at the loss and respect for the sorrow. Their responsibility is to wait until the bereaved himself initiates – or does not initiate – conversation, and then quietly follow suit.
And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
—Job 2:12, 13
I like shiva.
But I don’t expect everyone to, including everyone who is bereaved.
Although we knew little if anything about shiva before we knew about traumatic loss ourselves, we as a couple followed some of the rites by instinct in that week after the zero point. And I have to say that if I were to revisit that holy week, I’d follow more of the rites and politely ask others to follow them with me. That week, and that general stretch early on after the death of your beloved can be a powerfully charged period for learning things of a spiritual nature. The last thing one would want is to miss out on such tutoring by being somehow distracted or having the world crowd in and crowd out the Spirit.
What follows shiva in Jewish tradition is avelut. I knew absolutely nothing of this stage of ancient mourning practices until well into that woeful first year. Quite accidentally, I stumbled upon this Hebrew word while researching different cultures’ responses to death, and was surprised to find that without having known I was doing so, I’d already been holding strict avelut for several months.
What is avelut? It is, as a Jew would explain it, the year-long period of private and social behavior outlined for the bereaved, especially children who lose parents and parents who lose children. In keeping avelut, the avel (or the bereaved) does not run from his grief through any number of common escape routes which research and history prove are our favorites; alcohol, drugs, obsessive work, excessive sleep, infidelity, angry rampages, gambling, shopping sprees, you-can-fill-in-the-blank.
Instead, the avel retreats from the world and from worldly things. This is, however, no passive shutting down. No dark mood, no passing funk. Neither is this depression. And it’s certainly not some kind of pathological anti-social behavior.
This is a measured, deliberate choice to neither flee grief nor be passively detroyed by it. Here’s the logic: Ancient wisdom suggests that in this raw, skinless state, an avel is highly receptive – maybe more than any other time in his life – to learning the fine-particulate matter, the things of the spirit. Those spiritual things will give understanding and with that understanding will come strength, comfort. This period of such exceptional receptivity is brief. If one runs from it, one has lost a rare opportunity to be tutored.
I’d like to share with you what avelut meant to me and my family.
From the introduction to Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward:
“Resurrection is for those on both sides of the tomb,” writes Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Laura Mendenhall, in an Easter sermon given shortly after the death of an infant girl from her congregation. Of that truth, I am living proof. When your most beloved dies, when your profoundly bonded flesh and blood dies, you die too. It seems the inviolable law of nature. My “death” manifested itself physically: the heart palpitations, the anvil crushing my chest for months on end, the weakness, the fatigue, the overwhelming longing for blue-black drifts of oceanic sleep.
Resurrection, at least a metaphorical one, takes both a staggering amount of effort and a continuance of God’s life-giving grace over a very long period of time. That, I might add, means much more work and far more grace and many more years than anyone uninitiated in traumatic loss seems to ever fully realize at the start.
Like a literal resurrection, ours began from what felt like underground, while buried in sorrow, entombed in grief. Our souls instinctively needed solitude and retreat, a wilderness place apart, a certain protection from the glaring and blaring invasion of the world at large. This meant holing up. As a result, that first year was about as close to monastic living as a nice married Mormon couple with children could fashion. In case I make the refuge or us sound a bit too holy, I want to make it perfectly clear that nothing felt holy enough. But Randall was obliged, after only a few days back in Munich, to return immediately to the necessarily worldly atmosphere and incessant demands of his career. Given the teleconferences on marketing strategies, unavoidable business dinners, and a major structural reorganization taking place right then in his company, the holiness he’d felt for days on end, as much as he longed for it every hour, could not be his daily habitat. If he removed himself entirely from his work at just this moment, many of his colleagues’ jobs would be at high risk. He couldn’t abandon them. So in just that sense, the human one, his work held some meaning. But the professional competition now felt meaningless, even hollow, and his soul hungered to stay close to the nourishing reverence we’d experienced those first few days after impact, close to where we always felt the Spirit and Parker, where their strength and light were accessible. We did all we could both together and individually to hold onto that holiness.
As I withdrew from the outer world, (no music, no shopping, no television, no movies, and very little if any social contact), I entered an intense journey of meditation and prayerful study. This meant that for more than a year, every morning after the children left for school and Randall for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: the Bible; poetry anthologies; the Book of Mormon; a modern French novel; the Doctrine and Covenants; a German lyric; a prophet’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; the Pearl of Great Price; a commentary on the Book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from prophets and apostles past and present; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of the Mormon pioneers; accounts of Holocaust survivors; accounts of 9/11 survivors; accounts of tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, captured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.
For hours to days to weeks to months on end, I hunkered down in profound concentration, spelunking and pick axing through others’ writings. Why, of all things, was this my response to grief? For one thing, I was hunting for community, or better, for communion. I knew no one in Munich and no one knew me. As important, no one knew Parker. I had no community to validate my feelings or give me a control group against which to check my sanity at a time when I feared I might be losing my mind from sheer pain. In the thousands of pages I read, I held out hope that I might find someone who would understand something of the state of acute confusion and alienation we were living in. Perhaps, too, I would find someone to sit quietly and weep with me.
I was also looking for words, literally. From the earliest minutes of arriving at the ICU and throughout the months that followed, I realized that there was no existing vocabulary for either the horror or the holiness we were experiencing. Never had I needed so desperately to be understood, yet never had I felt so misunderstood. Would this tragedy drive me to permanent silence, me, a woman whose whole education, profession and delight had been tethered to words? Maybe, just maybe, I thought, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of words I was raking through, I would find one passage that would give voice to the devastation I could otherwise find no words for.
But above all, I was searching for knowledge. I ached for meaning, yearned for truth. I was mining for wisdom, for enlightenment, mining like a tenacious scientist on the trail of The Great Cure of the century, but instead of a cure or a release from the constant pain we were now experiencing, I yearned for knowledge and understanding of it. Though I’d always been a student of the gospel, I now sought more than ever a greater knowledge and understanding of God. It would be God who would offer true communion, I knew that. And it would be God who would understand my several questions for which I had no language. And it would be God who would reveal meaning and truth. It would be God, ultimately, who would provide an answer to the question that now consumed my life: How could I live on with the death of my son?
When in my research someone’s words hit the bedrock of Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when an insight stunned me to immediate tears, or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type the words into my growing laptop files.
That mining for light, as I’ve just described in that substantial quote from the introduction toGrief and Grace, gave me hundreds of pages of quotes that have been edited into something I pray might be of help to others facing the abyss of great loss.
Beyond that, however, and what I consider a far more precious result of that once-in-a-lifetime concentrated retreat, avelut revealed many essential and practical truths about our son’s accident, details unknowable unless someone was guided spiritually to certain sources and people with specialized knowledge. Thanks to the searching we did during that first year of our unwitting avelut, we also learned things of a spiritual nature I choose not to speak about but on rare occasion and in special circumstances, and though I have written it all down, that is material I do not share openly. But they are concrete realities and have offered to me and my family testimony after testimony of the truth that life is eternal and loving, familial bonds endure beyond this sphere.
So what if instead of choosing to face and enter my grief, I had chosen, instead, to distract myself from it, to run from it? To dance a fake jollity jig? To amuse myself away from my son’s death?
Or what if I’d been in a community that had insisted, all with the best intentions, of course, on distracting me from my grief? Cheerleading me away from it? Coaxing me into a mall? Or a bar? Or a spa? All the time moving me away from that time of fleeting receptivity and all that could have been learned only there and then?
Would distraction have provided a quicker healing? Strengthening? Fortifying? A faster way through? Or would it have been a feverish detour, maybe, the kind you’ve driven before that brings you right back to that same main road with all the messy construction anyway, back to that same bleak stretch, back to the only way through?
To some, I imagine avelut might sound, I’m not sure, masochistic, draconian or even just an unnecessary drag. But because of my small but potent experience during that time of sacred retreat, I believe that avelut was above all things a rare and precious blessing. It taught me about holding onto holiness, how vital yet how hard it is, and about the importance of creating the necessary climate where personal revelation is as essential as air and where God’s merciful presence is real, real in its fiery power, real in its muscular grace.
From Grief and Grace:
The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. . . .
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. . . . Someone once said to me, “Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.” This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 8, 9
In the end denial, bargaining, binges, and anger are mere attempts to deflect what will eventually conquer us all. Pain will have its day because loss is undeniably, devastatingly real.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 59
I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria, and generally people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts, with flung torches of chitchat and spinning scimitars of small talk.
They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?
I felt in those first weeks, meeting people I knew, like the most terrifying object on earth.
Who knows what people think? Not me, and especially not then. Still it surprised me, every time I saw someone who didn’t mention it. . . . I am trying to remember what I have thought when I’ve done the same thing, all those times I didn’t mention some great sadness upon seeing someone for the first time. Did I really think that by not saying words of consolation aloud, I was doing people a favor? As though to mention sadness I was “reminding” them of the terrible thing?
As though the grieving have forgotten their grief?
—Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, 92–93
When people outside the immediate family are encountered who do not allow. . expression of emotions and thoughts about the deceased children, it creates a resentment that is difficult to control. Subsequently, the time comes when parents begin to separate themselves from insensitive and uncaring people in their environments who insist on keeping channels of communication closed.
Many times a wedge is driven between those suffering the loss and very dear and close friends. We can refer to this as a “wedge of ignorance”—ignorance about the great importance of open . . . communication.
—Ronald Knapp, Beyond Endurance, 31–32
While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 21
Across the years I have met countless men and women who have used drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, work, hobbies, or shopping to drown out the painful scenes [of the death of a loved one] in their minds. My drug of choice was work. My hectic schedule was a convenient distraction, and it was something I used in my attempt to outrun the pain. . . .
Along my grief journey I have met countless men who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. . . . For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road.
—D. Apple, Life After the Death of My Son, 32–33