By John T. Schwiebert, ThM
The Hebrew Scriptures tell a poignant story about how King David responded when he was told of the death of his infant child:
David rose from the ground [where he had lain all night, fasting and praying that his son would survive a serious illness], washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the LORD, and worshiped; he then went to his own house, and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive, but when the child died, you rose and ate food.” David said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
--2 Samuel 12:20-23
During my many years of working with persons who are grieving, I have learned that it is seldom appropriate to do as did David’s servants when they questioned, and perhaps even disapproved of, his unconventional way of grieving. But I invite those readers who may be having difficulty managing their own grief to study David’s approach to see what it might teach us.
The customary practice in David’s time, following the death of a loved one, was to go into an extended time of public mourning, before resuming ordinary responsibilities. Even today different cultures have dissimilar ideas about what grieving should look like and how long the time of mourning should last, but most have some specific idea of the proper attitude and agenda for active grief.
But David ignored the social customs of his day entirely. He also, apparently, skipped the intermediate stages of grief that have been identified in recent years, such as denial, anger, bargaining and depression. David went straight to the stage we call acceptance. He embraced his loss for what it was—a painful difficult reality that he could not change. But he also determined that he would not let his loss, and even the reality of death itself, define who he was and determine how he would live his life going forward.
Does this mean that he experienced no grief after that? No. Being human he no doubt felt the pain of loss for the rest of his life, though the pain probably diminished and became intermittent over time. But he was able to name his pain and face it squarely as he moved in and through it.
Recently, here in Portland, Oregon where we live, the public got to witness a contemporary example of a grieving spouse who was able to embrace her loss and move forward, accepting fully what she could not change.
One of our Portland City Commissioners got word that her husband, the love of her life and father of their three children, was killed instantly in an automobile accident at the age of 54. He was a prominent, highly regarded and much loved psychiatrist employed in a large state-run mental hospital. He was also a talented artist, photographer and musician. Just days after his death, the new widow invited the public to join her in a public memorial gathering in a downtown park, promising that all who came would have a good time.
Instead of putting on the black of mourning she put her energy into an exuberant celebration of his life—a life now completed, however short it had been. She was clear about her loss. But, instead of dwelling on what she had lost, she celebrated what she had gained by falling in love with this man and joining him in a union of shared commitment for the time that they had been given to be together as husband and wife. She affirmed life that cannot be destroyed by death and in so doing left no room for regret, lingering disappointment, or crippling depression.
How about it, grieving friends? Is this a helpful concept—looking death and loss in the eye, giving it our full attention, but not letting it take over our lives—making “tear soup,” as it were, but only as long as we need to before finding other forms of nourishment?
I invite your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.