Honoring Our Grief

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – May 31, 2009

They came that same day. The tree trimmers. I’d been trying to get ahold of a tree company to trim some dead branches high up in one of our elms. No one had returned the call. So, when this man with his baseball cap and green polo shirt came to our door asking gruffly if we had any trees to be trimmed I welcomed his invitation and met him in the backyard to have him give us an estimate.

Earlier that morning, my husband and I had gone to the vet’s to put down our 15 year old dog, Sam. Sam was a very large, very loveable Airedale. He had been getting increasingly unable to stand and I would frequently find myself having to find ways to scoop his 85 pound body from his prone position when he went down, his feet splayed around him. He would not be able to raise himself. He would sometimes be incontinent. So, day by day, we knew that we weren’t doing him any favors to keep him going just to keep us company.

So, that day, when the tree trimmer’s saw buzzed away, taking away old dead limbs, I sat with this pain in my heart. Feeling like I would never be the same again. And when the tree trimmer was done and I went out to see what was done, I saw the hole. There was a large hole in the tree coverage that surrounded our yard. We have a large yard and very tall old trees. But after they removed one of the ivy covered limbs, it left a gaping hole in the leafy umbrella of tree branches. As soon as I saw it, I felt exposed. It looked just like I felt. Exposed and raw.

Grief is something you can never predict. You know when you see a loss coming that you are going to be sad. You know it’s going to take time. But you forget the pain. You forget how one loss uncovers all your other losses. You forget how much strength it takes to recover again.

A poem about grief that describes this internal strength is this one by May Sarton:

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

This isn’t a poem that is helpful when your grief is fresh and new. When you feel that you may never recover and you need to find strength just to get up from your bed every morning. During that time, you feel you can’t let go. You don’t want to let go.

But one morning you wake up and you realize that the sun is still shining and the world is going on cheerfully without you. And you begin to realize that you are still alive and that your love is still intact although it feels more painful to still love. And you sometimes wish you didn’t still love.

But that “strong root still alive under the snow” has kept you going. Your internal engine has kept you going through the dark time when you weren’t sure you wanted to get through. Your season of grief with its insistence on your letting go slowly moves forward as you move into the next stage of grief realizing that you have lost what you have lost, but that you can “keep what [you] can keep”.

The people around us remind us of what we’ve kept even when we haven’t noticed since we’ve been so self-absorbed. The people who have sat beside us, sent us letters, called us up and sent us their love during our difficult time. They remind us that love endures, if we can find the strength to go on and to let go of what is gone.

Everyone deals with grief differently. And there is no right way. In the past, I seem to have insisted that when you grieve you need to fall into it and let it take you where it will. I seem to have a need to wallow in grief, simply because I don’t think it’s going to go away if I ignore it.

But others feel that they must be distracted and that is how they get through. They don’t want to talk about it and don’t want to take time out. I used to feel that was not dealing with grief. That this method of putting off the grieving would only come back to haunt them when the real pain hit them. I have since discovered that my judgment is not helpful because everyone’s way is different. That some grieve inside while smiling outside and that’s just their way. And maybe I’m jealous that I can’t do that.

I know that grief is totally unpredictable. One day you’re sitting at your desk hard at work on a project and you see on the screen an image of something that reminds you of a time with your loved one that just comes up unbidden. You are overwhelmed once again and it’s like a relapse when you had the flu. You find yourself once again at the bottom of that well.

Another day you’re taking a walk and noticing the sun and how it feels on your arms. All of sudden you realize that you are going to be okay. You didn’t even notice that when your grief had assaulted you first in each minute, and then each five minutes, and then each hour. That eventually life took hold and you might have a time period of a few hours when you didn’t even think of it. And eventually while the grief that had absorbed you has now seeped into your core, it has changed you, but you have survived. You are transformed, and you go on.

In David Whyte’s poem, News of Death, that we read today, he so achingly describes the thoughts one might have while first dealing with the idea of death. He reminds us of the cycles of life like the grass lying flat against the fields and the fish floating belly up. Everything dies. You know this intellectually. But then the news is absorbed in you and you give in to it. You finally realize the finality of it.

They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.
For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

Your realization of the finality of death can sometimes bring some understanding that while you feel alone, that you are not. That the universe from whom death comes, is with you in this moment. “The night put its arms around me, and the white stars turned bitter with grief.” The whole world feels grief. No one is exempt from it. We are not alone in our grief. We have each other. And we have inside us that “strong root” keeping us “still alive”. If we can “tree-like stand unmoved before the change”. Treelike, meaning still strong but transformed by the season of grief. We have let go of our leaves, but we have retained our roots of love which have endured.