Grief and the Upside-Down Shovel

My wife and I received a lot of cards and notes and calls the last week as we dropped off our daughter Elizabeth last Friday for her first year in college and then immediately drove to Indiana for my sister Kathy’s funeral on Saturday.

Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, we drove just under 2,000 miles, crossing nine different state lines. We went through at least as many states of mind, from “pride and joy” to “heartache goodbye at bittersweet parting” to “grief-for-the-dying” to “appreciation for, and celebration of, life.” Not to mention all the inherent joys and stresses of a de facto family reunion — I was able to catch up not only with my three older brothers and my sisters-in-law, but with nieces and nephews I haven’t seen in years, and was able to visit with — in some cases for the first time — their spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends and children.

Just as was the case at my dad’s funeral in 2001, and my niece’s funeral in 2007 and my mom’s funeral in 2008, I helped coordinate and even preached at my sister’s funeral.

It’s an odd and difficult honor to play several different roles at the same time: grieving brother or son, funeral service officiant and preacher, husband, younger brother. Not to mention, last week, Dad-Who-Is-Trying-To-Be-Really-Okay-About-Letting-Go-Of-His-Little-Girl.

As someone so kindly wrote in a card, “I’m sure you were able to give your sister a great deal of comfort in her final weeks and days. But for you, there have been a lot of stressful events in recent days: moving, Mary’s job change, Elizabeth leaving the nest, and of course being the strong, spiritual family member during your sister’s illness and death. We hope you are taking time to care for yourself as well.”

What a kind and wise thing to notice, and say.

But I’ll be honest: in the past — in the aftermath of my niece and mom’s nearly back-to-back deaths — I might have done a good job at giving comfort to others, but I did a terrible job of taking care of myself. I stuffed my grief. I yielded to the temptation to jump right back into work. I spoke and wrote almost nothing about what I saw at the time as “personal, family stuff.”

Well, the emotions of grief are like weeds in your yard: you can busily mow over them, and by doing so, not see any evidence for a while. But if you don’t address the roots, they just spread. And multiply.

And eventually take over. The grief I tried to ignore in 2007 and 2008 popped up in noxious forms all over my life and ministry not long after.

To switch analogies, one of the lessons I learned from that time frame was that when Life Events knock you off balance, don’t pretend you’re still on race pace. Take a minute to dust yourself off; check yourself over for wounds; ice things down. Then, when you resume — unless you want lasting, even life-long injury — don’t start right back up at full speed. Start slowly, build gradually back up to race speed.

You’ll go a lot further that way. You’ll cause much less damage to yourself and others.

At Jewish burials — and at Kathy’s, and at all the ones I officiate at, if the family agrees — mourners participate in burying, actually burying, their loved ones. The body is lowered into the earth, and then family and friends symbolically participate in burying by putting a shovel-full of earth into the final resting place.

Except the shovel is used upside-down.

The upside-down shovel is a reminder that burying your loved ones — grieving their death — isn’t an efficient or quick process…it’s messy, it’s inefficient. It takes time.

Grieving your loved ones and celebrating their lives is not about efficiency. It’s about addressing roots; it’s about allowing the tincture of time to do its healing work.

As author Glennon Doyle Melton writes about her own journey: “I used to numb my feelings, and hide. Now I feel my feelings, and share. And that has made all the difference.”