The Ubiquity of Grief (and How I Tried to Climb the Ladder)

Another powerful one from our friend Connor Gwin.  Last year I wrote a piece for Mockingbird […]

Mockingbird / 6.8.16

Another powerful one from our friend Connor Gwin. 

ExistentialDread cartoonLast year I wrote a piece for Mockingbird about grief and Sufjan Stevens. I wrote about the cathartic experience I had at a Sufjan Stevens concert featuring his newest album (Carrie & Lowell) which centered on the death of his mother.

It has now been two years since my father died and I am still grieving. Do you know how frustrating that is for me? I believed the cultural maxim that eventually things would return to “normal” and I would “move on”. I believed that if I allowed myself to feel my feelings in the moment, surely they would disappear after a year. I believed that I could follow the five easy steps and be back to my usual self in no time.

Here is the problem: grieving never stops. The human condition is to grieve. We grieve our childhood, our family of origin, our hometown, our dreams for our lives, our significant other that got away, our former (thinner) self. We grieve our plans for the day as a child wakes up with a fever. We grieve our shattered expectations for our lives. To be human is to grieve. We are all grieving all the time, but we work to convince ourselves that everything is fine. We put in more hours at the office, we reorganize the closet again, we start training for the full marathon this time. We keep busy so that we don’t have to sit still long enough to realize that we are awash with grief.

In the two years since my father died I have kept very busy. I finished seminary, was married and ordained, began my work as an Episcopal priest, got a dog, bought a house, mowed the grass, hired a personal trainer, began making green smoothies, and read that one book about tidying up and tried to find joy in each pair of shorts I own. I did the steps and followed the plan. And yet, when I sit still long enough or when the stress from my work reaches just the right point of overwhelm, a flood of tears washes over me.


Each time I work through the emotions I discover that it all comes back to this: I miss my father and I miss my mother. My father died two years ago and my mother died almost eighteen years ago, but when I am quiet enough I can still hear eight-year-old Connor crying and wanting to be held. In the depths of my soul, I long for what I once had.

The Rev. Alexander MacPhail, a wise Episcopal priest, recently said that we live under the notion that eventually we can figure this whole thing out. Eventually we will solve our problems and, we secretly hope, we won’t need anyone to help us. We hope that eventually, he said, we won’t need the cross.

I am not a psychologist, nor am I a grief counselor, but I can tell you that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is full of shit. In my experience, there are not five stages of grief and after a few years the word “acceptance” has not entered my mind.  In my experience the sting of my parent’s deaths still stings, even after all these years.


What is the root of this sting? Paul says that the sting of death is sin and root of sin is Adam, the one who took matters into his own hands in the garden. Just like Adam, I want control. I want to be like God. This is why I hate traffic and group projects, because I want to be in charge. This is why death stings, in part because it is the ultimate reminder that I have absolutely no control. No matter how hard I work or how many hours I put in, I will never be in control. So I keep drinking green sludge packed with vitamins and tidying the closet in the guest bedroom packed with junk. Like the Meyerist cult in Hulu’s dark new show, The Path, I am continually looking for “the ladder” that I can climb to enlightenment.

The human condition is to grieve our lack of control. The Good News is not that God is in control. That greeting card response to death and tragedy falls flat when confronted with the European refugee crisis or school shootings or cancer or hurricanes or Donald Trump. Instead, the Good News is that God’s grace has the first and last words, the Alpha and Omega. The Good News is that God has done for me what I could not do for myself. The Good News is that death is not the end. There is no magic ladder out of grief and we will not magically ascend above our suffering. Instead, God descends into our pain and redeems it through the cross of Christ.

We are all grieving all the time. We are all going to die. We have no control. God is with us. That is the Good News. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?