The little mercies of grief

(For those interested in Christian perspectives on grief and loss.)

I haven’t had many opportunities to update the blog in the past 2 months, as I’ve been teaching English, but now that season is over and I’m getting ready to lead a series of retreats on “Living with Loss.” – Have a look here for more details. (It’s only 2 weeks until the retreat at the Greenhouse Christian Centre in Poole and it looks as though it will be a quiet retreat with just a small group. If this is something that appeals to you, it’s not too late to book.) 

While John and I are down in Dorset, after the retreat we’ll also take a few days break, and I’ve been exploring the area online to see where to visit. I came across Sherborne Abbey  which looks an atmospheric place to visit, and hopefully we will be able to pass by on our way home.

That’s to explain how come I ended up reading one of the weekly sermons on the Abbey website. I was struck by this description of Peter at the moment that he saw Jesus walking on the water:

But then he sees the wind and the waves and begins to sink. And at that moment Peter is not a man full of faith, a man with a mastery of Christian doctrine and belief. He is drowning, and he is afraid. All he can cry is “Lord, save me!” but for Jesus it is enough. He reaches out his hand and catches Peter, and holds him fast.

This wasn’t written about grief, but it does remind me of the grief journey.

No matter how much knowledge we have, or experience in matters of life and death, or how much or little we practice our faith, when we lose a dear loved one it is natural to feel as though we have lost our footing.  It often feels that the waves of sorrow will utterly overwhelm us. We’re drowning.

We may find ourselves afraid on so many levels. Afraid of the future, afraid of the regrets of the past, afraid of our own feelings. Overwhelmed. I think that accurately describes at least the first year after I lost my daughter Catherine, and certainly on occasions later than that. Even now, on a particularly important day like an anniversary or birthday, the pain of loss can wash over me so strongly that it’s like standing on a beach and suddenly being knocked over by a forceful unexpected wave, finding myself on my knees, gasping for air.

The sermon continues:

“O love that wilt not let us go.” Christian life is not a matter of living in constant remembrance of the faith we possess. It is not a matter of chasing a regular spiritual ‘high’ from which to live. Most of the time we are hardly conscious of our faith in God. We do not live with him constantly in our thoughts. But we do live from the fact that we are constantly in God’s thoughts. Our faith’s grip on the Father may loosen. But he holds us fast in his grasp.

(Canon Eric Woods)

Again, not written about grief and loss, but what a realistic picture of the grief-stricken. We may be “hardly conscious of our faith” – actually we may find ourselves wondering if we still have any faith, as our foundations have been so shattered. Yet he is still there for us. Even when we don’t see or feel him. Even when we don’t have evidence of his love — which truthfully can be hard to perceive after a tragic loss, especially if it was an untimely death or one preceded by suffering. Even if we don’t think we’re experiencing his comfort or a sense of his presence. But still, he is watching over us with love. And maybe it won’t be until later that as we look back, we will see the little mercies that happened, the little coincidences or perhaps tiny events that weren’t noteworthy at the time, but looking back we realise how they much helped us through our most difficult moments. Maybe it was seeing a butterfly or something else that is significant for us, or a song came on the radio, or… And we came through. We come through.

I look back at the agony of soul that followed the loss of the second of my two children, of the utterly raw despair I felt, the emotional turmoil and mental confusion, and I wonder sometimes how I am still here, almost six and a half years later, and I am active and busy and everything else. How did I survive that first couple of years that seemed impossible to survive? And there are lots of factors (too many to get into writing here) but I do look back and see those little mercies, and all of those mercies put together somehow pulled me through the worst time in my life. How have I walked through the valley I ask myself? He’s been here, though unseen and often unfelt.

And so, it isn’t us gripping him, but him holding onto us.

Back to the rector of Sherborne, to whom I will give the last word:

And though we will probably never have to suffer for our faith as Peter did for his [according to tradition Peter was eventually martyred], nevertheless we do suffer, we do feel pain and we do know what it is to be in the darkness and to lose sight of the light. And then Peter teaches us not to be afraid, not to fear the way ahead, for we are held in the love of God, and that love will never let us go.

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One of those mercies that pulled me through – our summer house, my garden sanctuary where I watch the birds 

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