Grieving By Choice
By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Given the emotional and even physical pain that is a part of the grief experience, it is hard to imagine that anyone would actually choose circumstances that would guarantee to bring about loss and therefore grief. Yet sometimes grieving by choice is inevitable.
I began thinking about this recently when, in our Peace House morning prayer time, we read the famous story that appears in the Gospel of Mark, beginning with chapter 10:17. It is about a man who asks Jesus what he must to inherit eternal life. Jesus advises the man to
“go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Then, we are told that
“When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions."
The story teller does not tell us what decision the man made so we are not sure what he “lost” because of this choice. Most readers assume that the man went away grieving because he realized that his unwillingness to give up everything that he had meant that he had would lose the opportunity to inherit eternal life. But it could be the other way around. It could be that the man did choose to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus and was therefore grieving the loss of the cherished worldly possessions that he had had to surrender in order to experience eternal life.
Either way the man was bound to lose something important, because, as Jesus says elsewhere, you cannot serve God and wealth at the same time. And the loss, one way or the other, is mostly likely going to be an occasion for grief.
And are there not other choices that we humans must sometimes make that guarantee grief no matter which was we choose?
I think of the woman who is offered an attractive employment opportunity in a distant city far from her home, family and friends. Will she say yes and grieve because of the separation from those she loves most? Or will she say no to the employment offer and grieve the loss of an opportunity that may never come her way again.
I think of the man who faces a decision about divorce from the parent of his children. Will he choose to break free from a difficult and dysfunctional marriage and grieve the loss of a partner whom he still loves and the loss of daily contact with his children? Or will be stay in the marriage with all of its difficulties, "‘till death do us part” and grieve the loss of a less stressful and more satisfying life alone or with another partner?
In our work with grieving parents we sometimes work with parents who have made what, for them, is an agonizing choice to abort a pregnancy. (And contrary to belief of many anti-abortion activists, many parents who do opt for abortion go through a considerable season of grief!) Other parents make the choice not to abort only to then live with grief over the loss of missed opportunities because they had to give up or postpone career advancement in order to focus on parenting a small child.
In all of these situations and more as well, the grief will probably not be permanent. The choosers will find ways to get through their grief and eventually, by God’s grace, find happiness in the ultimate outcome.
But make no mistake about it. Along the way there will be grief-by-choice. Surely it helps to recognize grief’s inevitability in such cases and to prepare for it ahead of time.