Scripture: John 11:1-44
A Grief Journey. Dave Rogalsky May 2017
It may seem strange to begin with a sermon about grief, but I expect that many of you are at various places in grief around Pastor John Maine’s leaving Church of the Good Shepherd. So to begin, we are going to explore grief, and the sermon is full of my own story of a recent grief.
I want you to keep the story from John 11 in the back of your mind. What kind of grief was present there? How did Jesus relate to those who were grieving? Why did Jesus grieve?
“It was here somewhere,” I said to my son Allan. “The Boese canning factory was over here, and over there was an orchard where we lived in our trailer until about 1962. It was near the dormitory for the workers. At least I think. I should ask Dad.” The Boeses were a Russian Mennonite entrepreneurial family who had opened and run several canning factories in the Niagara region. Dad was Peter Rogalsky. He and my Mom, Leona Unger, had both worked for the Boese’s in the late 1950s and early 60’s.
“I should ask Dad.” But the reason my son and I were driving past the corner of Lake Street and Lakeshore Road in St. Catharines at 1:30 in the morning on July 11, 2015 was that we had just come from Dad’s deathbed in the Niagara Health System St. Catharines’ site. There was no more asking Dad anything.
I had trained myself to plan things to ask Dad for our weekly Monday evening calls. I had a difficult relationship with Dad, coming from abuse in my childhood. What that meant was that at first when I took up the task of calling him weekly the calls were short and difficult. Five minutes and I was done. But wouldn’t a Christian son, a minister no less! try to be in relationship with his Dad? So I began gathering questions of family, history, and for stories, so that the calls would be more grace filled. By the time he died I had the habit - but no one to ask. Over the months to come I came to see that when grief was more sharply focussed the thought of asking Dad would come more often.
When I began studying to be a pastor in the late 1970’s the study of grief was new. Through the years grief had been downplayed more and more, often removed from any public show. In any of you watch Downton Abby you’ll remember seeing the crepe armbands announcing grief in the early 1900’s. But over the years it was seen as maudlin, overworked, too public - so men, and often women, were expected to just go on with their day to day behaviour, keeping grief hidden and private. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book On death and dying was published 1969. In it she was one of the first to discuss the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Granger Westberg’s 1962 Good Grief listed ten stages: shock, emotion, depression, physical distress, panic, guilt, anger, resistance, hope, and acceptance. The focus on stages or steps of grief made it seem like grief was a linear process through which folk passed, moving from one step to the next. Finish one step and move on. It was possible to slide back into a previous stage, but this was seen as pathological. Someone who didn’t just keep on moving forward was sick. There was a recent article in the Waterloo Region Record which perpetuated such thinking.
In my years of ministry, and in observing friends and family, people do sometimes get stuck in grief. Counselling from professional caregivers, as well as patience and much love from both professional and lay caregivers can help a person resolve the complicated inner tangle which loss brings. Families and friends need to stick it out with people who are stuck, still often weeping years later at the grave side; not allowing the departed’s things to be moved or cleaned up. Think Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, still grieving her lost wedding many years later, wearing the wedding gown and leaving the feast room set up for the party, food and all.
By the time I got to seminary in the late 1980’s we were seeing things in less staged, linear ways. People could cycle around through the various parts over and over again. Each person’s grief would follow its own path, taking varying amounts of time.
Differences in grieving in couples and among friends and family often bring disagreements and emotional turmoil in relationships as folk do not understand each other, or give each other room to journey through their grief in their own way and on their own schedule. These differences are seen as a key reason that so many marriages run into difficulties after the death of a child. The couple each mourns in their own way and do not understand their partner’s journey or walk alongside them with patience and love. After Annemarie and I experienced a miscarriage in the early 1980’s we had what I call the 100 kilometre fight. Driving from southern Ontario to Winnipeg about two months after the loss we argued for over an hour. Finally I stopped and we figured out that I was not understanding her need to continue to grieve. Little did I know that I too was grieving, albeit more subconsciously. In retrospect I now see many times in my adult life where I grieved but wasn’t aware of the emotions which I, and those around me, were experiencing. They received my anger and depression! When I left my first pastorate I later realized that I had allowed all my houseplants to die from lack of care. I see that now as the depression part of grief at work.
“I should ask Dad.” Dad taught me a lot about grief in his last years. Mom died in 2008 at age 73 after spending seven years in a nursing home with a degenerative neurological condition. Dad grieved intensely, often going to the graveside to weep for years after she died. As he grew nearer his own death from stage four prostate cancer he again began to talk about her and his grief at the loss. By this time I had come to the conclusion that I neither needed to, nor had the ability to help him move on. It was better that I let him know that I heard him and was with him in his grief. I did notice that when he got bad news about his condition, or the pain level was on the rise, he grieved more. All his losses and distresses became mixed together. Think of yourself or another as a train. As griefs happen they climb onto the train. Over time they leave. If many griefs come in series, before others have left, then all the griefs are more crowded together and intense.
Rather than stages of grief, like Westburg or Kübler-Ross, I prefer to think about grief as components which can follow a progression or move around chaotically. Denial is often the first part of grief. When I drive home from a death bed as a pastor, or from planning the funeral with the family, I often feel a disconnect between the reality of this death and the ongoing world around me. My “I should ask Dad” was a minor form of denial as my subconscious was not connecting with the fact that Dad was gone to where I could no longer ask him anything and expect an answer. In severe cases denial can become psychotic with a mourner really not believing that the deceased is gone.
Anger is another component. Men in Western culture are especially prone to anger as expressions of grief. We tend to also externalize anxiety in the same way, lashing out at the world around us which won’t stay put, is constantly changing, and which is raising in us feelings which we have not been trained to process. I was quite upset with parts of my Dad’s funeral service when my Dad’s pastor decided to discard the scriptures I had carefully chosen and instead inserted others. Others in the family were likewise angry – and not only the men!
Westberg’s physical distress can be psychosomatic symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, tiredness, muscle aches. This is connected with the physical symptoms of depression. I found that after my Dad’s death work that would have taken an hour took 25 to 50 % longer. I couldn’t get as much done – I lacked energy and concentration. Shortly after my Dad died I went to interview a friend for an article in the magazine for which I write and I couldn’t find his place. When I finally arrived, having used the map function on my phone, he told me that someone had told him, after his Dad’s death to “give it a year” before your mental functions return to normal. With my Dad it took nine months before I began to feel normal energy. Sadness and a desire to not have to process others’ grief or pain were part of this time for me. A bit of seasonal affect disorder (SAD) accompanies me most winters. It was worse that year.
Kübler-Ross’s bargaining is our subconscious and ego’s attempt to keep life the way it was. Grief is really about rebuilding ourselves and our lives without the person or things that we have lost, be it a job, a possession, a relationship or other precious object of our affection. We cannot bring the dead back. We cannot become young again. Somethings are gone forever from our lives. But all of us crave central stability. In conscious and unconscious ways we bargain with ourselves, God and others to get things back to where they were. Slowly in the course of grief we create a new normal without that which is lost.
This would be acceptance – "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it." Again Kübler-Ross and Westberg, working in a modern scientific and ordered way of thinking saw this as a stage, a destination. My experience in my own grief, and that of others with whom I have walked along as friend or pastor, is that acceptance is a place that comes and goes. While March 2016 brought more energy and wholeness, Father’s day, the June anniversary of my Dad’s birth, and the July anniversary of his death brought a return of sadness and other signs of grief. He will always be gone. I go on but without him. There is certainly more peace now than there was.
On this journey I was aided by some significant things and disciplines:
the love and care of spouse, children, a granddaughter, friends and peers;
the knowledge that this is a normal process that does have a path towards being re-centred and refocussed;
patience and gentleness with myself, knowing that this is what happens, that it is good, and necessary;
self-care – rest, food and drink, prayer, my spiritual director, a support group of peers, journaling, drumming;
accepting others’ offers of listening, eventually their stories and observations;
and a regular practice of contemplation where I found God gentle and patient with me, without judgement or correction, sitting with me as I fumed, as I worried, as I grieved.
Grief is coming to terms with the new reality that as I look at the evening glow of the sky that there is no one between me and it. I am now the one others see in silhouette as they ponder life, and death.
So, what about Jesus, Lazarus and his sisters? You might notice that Mary and Martha grieved differently. They both use exactly the same words when they challenge Jesus, “Lord, If you had been here my brother would not have died.” Martha enters into a theological discussion that gives her great comfort. She has a kind of intellectual personality, looking for rational answers. She finds them as Jesus talks with her.
But Mary is a whole other case. She is distraught, broken, angry, falling apart. This will not have been the first time she rushed out and wept at the grave. No intellectual discussion here. With Mary Jesus weeps, deeply moved by her tears and obvious emotions. “Show me where he is laid,” he requests, his voice breaking.
What was Jesus’ grief about? - Lazarus’ suffering? Mary’s pain? The condition of humankind? Whatever it was, his grief was real, his suffering empathic, joining Mary and Martha in their different griefs, not criticizing Martha for coldness, nor Mary for over reacting. He simply was with them both in what they were experiencing.
Questions still remain – why did he wait across the Jordan? Is God so hard hearted to allow all this suffering in order to provide the raw materials for the miracle which shows Jesus as Lord of life and death? Why did Jesus grieve, knowing that in just a minute he would raise Lazarus from the grave? How much did Martha really understand and believe? Jesus tells her he will raise Lazarus but she still counsels against opening the grave.
Questions always remain when we grieve: why? Why now? Why them and me? Why this way? Why death or loss at all? Part of the grief journey is learning to live with the unanswered questions.
As a congregation you are in a time of loss. John Maine served here as pastor for eleven years and now is gone. You will each have your own journey around this. Some of you will feel the loss intensely. There will be some of you who, though you wouldn’t say it, are ok or glad he is gone. Some of you will want me to be like John, others will be glad that I bring different things, wanting to name them better even though comparisons aren’t helpful. You have other griefs, questions about the future for yourselves as a group, this building, the Swedenborgian movement at large. Grief is a time of putting together your life again, without that which is gone. May God be your help. Talk to me
Sit comfortably, putting everything out of your hands.
Hands in your lap, eyes closed, breathe three normal breaths.
In the silence, remember griefs you have experienced. Offer them to God.
Wait. What does God do? Say? Offer?
Sit with God for a moment.
God of life and death. Loss is part of our lives, and part of your experience of our lives. In Jesus you expressed grief at the loss of Lazarus, Mary’s pain, people’s refusal to heed your teaching and love, and on and on. You grieve with us. We don’t understand the ‘whys’ but we often choose to trust in you, though sometimes our trust in you is frayed in our grief. Bring healing through your love and through the love of your people in our lives. We trust in you, the resurrection and the life.
Questions for A Grief Journey:
Dave Rogalsky suggests that grief is less a process with consecutive steps and more a journey which each person follows on their own path and time. What has your experience been – consecutive steps or a more chaotic path?
“Grief is really about rebuilding ourselves and our lives without the person or things that we have lost, be it a job, a possession, a relationship or other precious object of our affection.” Is this true for you? Partially true, partially untrue? How?
What didn’t help you to process your grief?
What has helped you to process your grief?