(2 Samuel 1:1; 17-27)
The Celts had a saying that, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart.” They also believed that in “the thin places” that distance was even closer. Grief is one of those “thin places” to me. In that darkness is a reminder, for me, that this world is not our home and – despite the darkness – there is yet hope. But there are times when I have struggled to see the light.
I remember, soon after I started ministry at the church in Idaho, standing with a young couple at a funeral home a few days after Christmas preparing to do a service for their little boy who had died of SIDS two days before Christmas. He had only been a few months old and the casket was no bigger than a shoe box. They shouldn’t have to make caskets that small, I remember thinking.
I also recall sitting with a couple who were members of the church in Michigan trying to make sense of the death of their college-age, and only, daughter who was killed while driving to work. Her car hydroplaned into on-coming traffic and she never had a chance. Again, parents are not supposed to outlive their children; and some of you have had that experience. In that case, however, I also watched as the darkness tore that couple apart and drove the husband away from the church.
There are times, even now, when the darkness of those events – and others – threatens to overwhelm me. This is the type of darkness in which David finds himself today. King Saul and his son Jonathan, whom David loved dearly, have died, and David cries a mournful lament. His grief is palpable, as he tells the very land and all its people to mourn with him. With grief this profound, it is hard to see how light and life can ever emerge again.
Today, counselors would suggest any number of therapeutic strategies for King David. They’d push him to talk about his loss, vent his frustration and work through his grief. Certainly, he would not be left alone with the sorrow.
Is all this counseling commotion a good idea? Many in the clinical community don’t think so. A few years ago, British psychologist Simon Wessely took a look at six studies of debriefing and found that it had no effect. Tana Dineen, a psychologist who wrote Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People, agrees: “People race into disaster areas, but there is no research that says people benefit from trauma counseling. These counselors get people to talk about how upset they are, but they may be doing damage.”
Don’t misunderstand. This glut of grief work is no doubt offered by skilled and dedicated people and benefits a great number of victims. But a significant body of research suggests that it is not always and necessarily helpful.
Perhaps the emotional ecology of the grieving is better protected – or at least served just as well by solitude and reflection – not endless self-analysis.
When tragedy strikes, we turn on the TV and see a death-driven drill: The call goes out across the country, and the counselors converge. Even the most innocuous incident requires that schools or organizations provide grief counselors – social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and clergy who lend empathetic support and listen as people pour out their grief.
In Littleton, Colorado, where the god of the underworld ran amok in the form of two teenage killers, counselors spent 1,500 hours talking to students in the first week after the shooting – 1,500 hours of counseling in one 168-hour week. During presidentially declared disasters, the Center for Mental Health Services contributes $12 million or more of federal funding to counseling.
Not that resources are being devoted only to people mourning people. The Pet Loss Support Hotline at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is in service Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00. “When dealing with the loss of an animal companion, you are faced with many intense feelings,” explains their Web site (www.vetmed.vt.edu). “By choosing to share our lives with pets, we become emotionally attached, and losing them … hurts very deeply. We are here to help if you are struggling to come to terms with your grief.”
While conventional wisdom says we should “be there” for victims, some experts are suggesting that victims need time to process their grief alone. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, in her book Learning to Walk in the Darkness, “If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
When we are grieving, the laughter of strangers and even the bright colors of flitting birds and summer flowers feel like a bit of an affront. A little too pretty and too happy, and too awake. Perhaps we’re not ready to move on from the darkness quite yet. As Taylor says, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
David, in his darkness, wrote a song about his experience, focusing more on the lives of Jonathan and Saul than on his own inner state. His experience helps us to re-evaluate our guidelines for good grief.
For starters, we should reconnect with ritual. Embracing time-honored traditions and deeply rooted disciplines that people have practiced for generations can give us a sense of connection and stability as our world is rocked by loss. For David, this meant taking hold of his clothes and tearing them (v. 11); it meant mourning and weeping and fasting. These practices were not invented by David on the spot, out of his own personal approach to death – rather, they were part of a ritual of bereavement that gave him the time, the space and structure he needed for making sense of sudden loss.
So what are the practices prescribed for postmodern mourners? Probably not clothes-ripping, but instead prayer and meditation, Scripture reading and silence, time alone with God and time with members of the Christian community. Reconnecting with the rhythms and resources of the faith tradition can be a comforting choice when loss threatens to overwhelm us.
Contrary to today’s popular stress debriefing models, we’re not helped by assuming that we survivors are at the center of the universe. We’re not aided by questions like “What were the first thoughts that raced through your mind at the time of the crisis?” and “What was the worst moment for you?” – queries that tend to elevate the psyche of the survivor to a place of supremacy. At a time of devastation, our focus should be on the significance of the loss of a loved one and on the fact that nothing in all creation – nothing in life, and nothing in death – can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). Again, David focused on Jonathan and Saul rather than his own feelings.
And in that, David also gives us guidance by setting a gracious example of speaking well of the dead. “Your glory lies slain on your heights, O Israel,” he laments in his elegy over Jonathan and Saul. “How the mighty have fallen!” (v. 19). There’s grief here, of course, as well as an unburdening of psychic pain, but David’s true catharsis comes through his focus on the significance of the lives of the lost – one a close companion and one a rival for political power – not through his describing to a counselor how this experience makes him feel. David could have dissed and dumped on Saul, pouring out a flood of bitter, angry feelings about the king’s bizarre behavior and his deadly plots … but he doesn’t. Instead, David gives the king respect, saying, “Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold” (v. 24).
There’s just not much evidence that spilling one’s guts has a positive effect on recovery from loss. George Bonanno, a professor of psychology at Catholic University, conducted a study of bereaved individuals over 25 months. He found that those who focused on their pain, either by talking about it or by displaying it in their facial expressions, tended to have more trouble sleeping and maintaining everyday functions. The implication is that there may be benefits in the old-fashioned and often discredited practice of simply toughing it out.
Not that the expression of feelings is wrong. Even David poured out the heartfelt words, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me” (v. 26). Expressing is good; obsessing is not good. In other words, there is a difference between an “experience” and a “lifestyle.” Experiences are designed to come and go, while lifestyles stick around. Experiencing emotion is to be followed by adjusting to life without the deceased and finally relocating the deceased in one’s mind so that progress is possible. Getting stuck in the “feelings stage” and hooked on grief is unhealthy – as is a lifelong payment plan to the professional grief counseling industry.
“Your love for me was wonderful,” emotes David in his elegy, “more wonderful than that of women” (v. 26). Can’t get much more passionate than that. But in the very next verses, David is adjusting to life without his best friend and moving on to the next stage of life. He asks the LORD if he should go up into any of the cities of Judah, and upon receiving a reply he makes his move. There’s no obsessing over feelings of loss, no unlimited and paralyzing period of mourning, no establishment of a Middle Eastern Association for Death Education and Counseling. David grieves and then goes.
But how is such a transformation possible? How does he achieve this relatively short turnaround from passion to progress?
David asks for direction from God, who says, “Go up” (2:1). The LORD does not want us to die before our life on this earth is over, so obsessed by grief that we fail to see the abundant life that is bursting in us and around us all the time. You remember the rather short and even rude reply that was given to the man who wanted to bury his father before becoming a follower of Jesus, don’t you? “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus curtly replies; “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). Jesus would never make it as a professional grief counselor!
When we, like David, ask God for directions, He always says, “Go up.” Go up to the next challenge I have prepared for you; go up to the new place where your healing will be complete; go up to that fresh opportunity to proclaim the kingdom of God.
This is the life God has for us. This is what matters. Not victory. Not conquest. Not spilling our guts or shouting at the sky. This is what matters – that God holds us in our grief and saves us even there. In the face of all the horrific injustices and inequities, and the seemingly constant stream of devastation of humanity, not only in faraway places, but right here in our own backyard, the darkness of our sufferings and need to lament remain present. It may be hard to see, but God is at work, redeeming human suffering and saving us from this grief by being with us right there in the darkness.
In the end, a lifetime of “going up” will take us to that kingdom where there is no more crying or mourning or human dying. In God’s eternal realm, the death-induced separation of David and Jonathan is finally over, and all the parents of the world are united in relationship with God and with children. Any grief that is truly good and healing and restorative always leads to this place, and it lets itself die away at the dawn of a new and everlasting day.