Grief and the Gift of Spiritual Direction By Rev. Christine Bonney Vogel, D. Min. (Spiritual Director)

The reality is that you will grieve forever.

You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one,

You will not just learn to live with it, you will heal and

you will rebuild yourself, and endure the loss

you have suffered.   

You will be whole again, but you will never be

The same.  Nor should you be the same, nor would

You want to be. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross


September 11, 2001 is a phrase that connotes both reality and symbol – an unprecedented wound in our collective psyche as U.S. citizens and a moment when many lives careened toward “narrative wreckage.”

Six weeks later my own life veered toward wreckage when my 25 year old son Brian was struck and killed by a car.   I still have the journal in which I wrote the following:

As the telephone next to my bed rang, waking me from sleep, I picked  up the receiver and heard a man’s  voice saying: “I’m sorry to tell you there’s been an accident and your son has been killed..” His  words punched a hole in my heart, and for one moment I spiraled into death myself.   And then I had a moment of utter clarity – the awful (and awe filled ) knowledge that life would always be “before” and “ after.”  I would forever be staring back into a past filled with memories that could never again be shared in life.  I would forever be staring toward a future that has completely lost its shape – because it is bereft of Brian.   How can I even begin to think about this future?

The death of a child is a life-shattering event.   Kathleen O’Connor observes that the lives we’ve anticipated, the hopes and futures we’ve envisioned, the grandchildren we have dreamed about are suddenly erased from our horizon.  Our life script is suddenly thrown out, and there is not yet a future story line to replace it.   Nor is there any assurance that a new one will ever fully emerge.

Our normal supports are swept away, and we may find ourselves plunging into a spiritual abyss that St. John of the Cross described as “a dark night of the soul,” a hole of emptiness that is not, unfortunately empty of the tortured feelings that can lead to despair.

We may find ourselves crying out, like Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Mark 27:46b).   Isolated by grief, we ask:  How will we find God in the dark?   What spirituality can bring comfort as we find ourselves living into a time when “the center will not hold”?  In his book Lament for a Son, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff responds to that question with the observation that “faith endures, but my address to God is uncomfortably altered.”

In the beginning, there is weeping.   Over the past 15 years, as both a minister and bereaved parent, I have asked where resurrection comes from and how broken lives can be redeemed.  I have encountered both the particularity and universality of grief

and have questioned how to enter into the agony of others without the arrogance of presuming to know what they are experiencing. 

With great effort, I’ve listened for the invitation to turn mourning into dancing in ways that have allowed me to face (and even greet) the awful difficulties of this “new” life with something other than denial.   Indeed, I have discovered to my surprise that my grief was the starting place for so many things, at the very moment when endings seemed absolute.

It has been a terrible journey at times, a hard road that has often been “inward and downward toward the hardest realities  {of my life] rather than outward and upward toward abstraction…”

Were it not for the compassionate – and sometimes gently confrontational – gift of spiritual direction, I don’t believe my navigation of this path would have reaped the benefits that I have experienced.   Each month I had permission to tell my story, many times over.   I could rage at Brian’s self-destructive tendencies; I could  both celebrate and mourn the great talent that would never be fully realized; I could marvel at the very different ways in which my husband was grappling with his grief.   In other words,  I could gradually  begin the task of “holy forgetting” even as I experienced new ways to express love for my son.  My spiritual director companioned me in the work of  these sacred conversations. 

Brian’s death created a never anticipated gap in my life (and those of my husband and daughter) that we realize can never be filled.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love.   And it would be wrong to try and find a substitute.   We must simply hold out and see it through.   It is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us.  It is nonsense to say that God fills this gap; He does not.   On the contrary, {God} keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain”.

Discovering grace in the midst of pain is not an easy experience, and it rarely comes as a gentle invitation to change.   Instead, it often comes like an assault – and we are tempted to flee; we don’t want to acknowledge the pain and loss.   

Belden Lane insists that we must turn and face the inevitable darkness  of that pain – and even run toward it.  For the truth is that we can no more outrun it than one can outrun the darkness that comes as the sun sets. 

Six months after Brian died, my husband and I turned toward the desert and a weeklong pilgrimage retreat on desert spirituality at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  Its seemed crucial to spend time in such vast and unforgiving space, which, in the classic pattern of Christian spirituality, symbolizes the stage of purgation.  We prayed that it might speak to us of hope, and if not hope, to the tenacity of life continually being born out of a hostile and unwelcoming environment.

Without all the “oughts” and “must dos” of our jobs and our everyday reality, we gave ourselves over to lament.  The mountainous and seemingly infinite landscape received our tears and mourning without anxiety;   it did not judge; nor did it insist (as had some friends) that it was pretty much time to get over this grieving and get back to normal.   As we broke apart emotionally, the desert remained constant , a silent witness , as well as a womb where we were able to give birth to the awful, sometimes inarticulate cries that went beyond the burden of speech.   The immense and majestic landscape – and the awesome God toward whom the landscape pointed – was able to withstand and absorb the enormity of our grief.   

The desert could not erase our pain, but it gave us space to name it and to make it more bearable.  Despite its imperviousness to human need, the desert was a mighty comfort.   While I did not think of it at the time, I now realize that the desert offered some of the most crucial aspects of  a good spiritual director:  providing silence rather than solutions;  a presence that was both comforting and challenging; space to name our pains and make them more bearable.

This October will mark the 15th anniversary of Brian’s death .I am still haunted by memories and the irreversibility of his absence.   Even now, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by moments of unexpected desolation.   Yet the desert has also been a source of transformation; the intersection between my life and my vocation has been a more potent source for healing and ministry than I could have envisioned.

My own journey through grief has taught me that “politically correct” doctrinal answers rarely provide a satisfactory response for suffering – even though some suffering can certainly be seen as the result of our sinfulness on both a personal and corporate level:  war, violence, poverty in the midst of plenty, compromised integrity, cruelty to others the cutting word, the abusive blow.   But suffering as a result of sin is not always a sufficient explanation.  We are left to ponder reasons that are beyond us, and we are left with unanswerable questions.   In the face of such mystery, I have relearned the importance of being a patient, listening presence.

Sorrow in the wilderness enlarged my soul; I can both mourn and give thanks, even though I don’t know if I will ever again feel unalloyed joy. 

And so, each year, on or near the anniversary of our son’s death, we journey back to the Ranch.  We make our way up to  the spot on the mesa where we erected a stone cairn on our first journey.  The site is high enough that we cannot see any aspect of the ranch and it is so at one with its setting that we still struggle to find the exact location. And every year I have several moments of panic that we have climbed to the wrong place.  A few years ago my husband suggested that we purchase a GPS, but we both realize that part of our pilgrimage is to find that which is seemingly lost.  And each year, after searching for the invariable clues that the landscape offers, we find it, as if for the first time.

This is sacred ground for us, even more than the cemetery plot in a Chicago suburb where Brian’s physical remains are buried.  This is a place he would have loved.  And each year we weep, offer prayers and share some of the memories that make us smile.   Then, invariably we weep again.   And as we descend, we smile,  remembering the first year, when I lost my balance and slid halfway down the last part of the climb.   Brian would have loved that!

The face of God is more mysterious and elusive than ever.  But as I have grasped at that which cannot ultimately be contained, I have gradually discovered the deepest sense of God in the experience of love, connections and caring that have come into my life as gifts.   God has become part of the seamlessness of existence, part of the web that connects us all.   In ministering to others, especially those with broken hearts and broken lives, I have ministered to my own brokenness. In working to free my own heart from its aimless wandering in the wilderness, I have walked with others through their own landscapes of grief, restored by the power and presence of God’s love in the midst of weeping.