Till Kingdom Come: How Grieving Is an Essential Part of Living

God is in the Space Occupied by Grief

… ought you not rather to mourn?
(
1 Corinthians 5:2)

Fifteen years ago, I walked into my counselor’s office for one of our weekly sessions and opened by telling him, “I feel like a loser.” Over the next hour, we talked through what was going on in my life to lead to this utterance, and by the end of the hour he had gently steered me to the realization that the derogatory term I’d assigned myself belied a deeper truth: I was experiencing loss that was hacking away at my heart, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

No one had died. Nothing monumental had happened. Rather, it was more about things that weren’t happening. But the pain was real, and over the next decade and a half (and still), he taught me to recognize the space between what things are and what they should be, and to grieve it. 

This comes up a thousand little ways every day, these not-deaths that are forms of death. My sons just started their school year here in Australia, and my younger boy moved from a magical kindergarten year into a new and unfamiliar first grade. I often forget that it’s not just my neurodivergent offspring who has a hard time with transitions, but one morning last week I was reminded of this by my six-year-old’s face: there in the backseat, he looked stricken, and I knew why. He was struggling to adjust to all the newness surrounding him, along with learning to say goodbye to what had been familiar and wonderful. In that instant, my heart broke for him. I wanted to make it better for both of us: to solely emphasize the pluses of the year, to positive-think our way directly into a less painful moment. But to do so would have been an abdication of fifteen years of therapy as well as everything I’ve taught my children about making space for their feelings. 

So we wept. And that didn’t make it better, but it was real.

I’m growing more and more convinced that the only truly mentally healthy reaction to living in this world is regular and profound periods of grief. And last year delivered so many opportunities. Whether you lost someone to COVID, or to another tragedy, or you didn’t lose anyone, we all felt the bleakness of a year lived in lockdown. For our part, here in Sydney we kicked off 2020 with ravaging wildfires. Then Kobe died, which was not an uncomplicated matter. Then there was COVID, then the loss of George Floyd and the resulting protests across the country. Then the election and … well, I don’t have to tell you. We were all there.

Personally, the period of lockdown and after, with all of its still and quiet moments, brought to the surface some difficult subjects for me to face, and there was no way to escape this pain: no social engagements or sporting events or kids’ birthday parties to distract me, no way to “busy” myself into a safe illusion of everything being fine. All that came to the surface had to be dealt with, and more often than not, the way of dealing was to allow myself to feel devastating sadness. To grieve.

Grief makes us pay attention. It stops us in our tracks — our Westernized, frantic tracks — and removes the veil between us and a deeper reality. The reality is that death is an unavoidable part of life; not just the death that ends our lives here on earth, but the deaths of broken dreams, of seamless transitions (what are goodbyes if not a result of The Fall?!), of unmet expectations. I believe more than ever that God is in the space occupied by grief; that he meets us there, sits with us there, makes us more like him there. It is a brutal form of love, but not a lesser one.

TV is easily one of those mediums that distracts us from this kind of thinking, but lately I’ve been watching WandaVision, and it is nothing if not an exploration of deep trauma and the resulting grief. And on Friday, when Vision turned to Wanda and said, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” — well, I nearly fell off the couch. As Atlanta-based pastor Kyle Howard recently wrote:

This show wasn’t supposed to be mere entertainment. In Marvel’s diversity project, it was clearly written for trauma survivors and done so with care and nuance […] For many people, the “perseverance of their love” is one of the only signs they’ve had to inform them they’re still living. It’s the fuel that keeps them living. For many, grief is not a mere inconvenience, it’s their evidence that they’re still human […] If grief is “love persevering” then those who’ve known profound grief are deep lovers, but that love is connected to their grief. If the ability to love is one of the greatest experiences of humanity, then a person overwhelmed by grief is most connected to their humanity by it.

I’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer daily now for a few months, not as rote repetition like I may have done when I was younger, but as an exploration of what it says about God. One of the parts I always dwell on is “thy kingdom come.” The more I think on these words, the deeper I feel embedded into an awareness of grief as part of the divine nature, reflected in the world being so far from what God made it to be and in the longing that stretches across millennia before it will be what it should be.

I can’t help but think that this longing is built into us; that our souls must acknowledge this space between the now and not yet, the should be and is; and that living in touch with the truest form of reality involves acknowledging this space in the form of grief. If we want to have some inkling of the depth of God’s love for us, we must recognize the exquisite pain and beauty that grief brings, and how one day he will vanquish all trace of it — a project of love he began on the cross. For what is grief, if not God persevering … with us?