Hallo Darkness, My Old Friend: Living with the Unresolved Questions of Grief
Sunday, 4 October 2009
“You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18, NIV)
Hallo Darkness, My Old Friend: Living with the Unresolved Questions of Grief.
In the second part of our meditation on the journey of grief, I would like to focus more on the experiences of a person who is grieving. It has been my experience that our society does not know how to deal with the so-called “negative” feelings or emotions. We either seek to suppress them or we try to deny them all together.
Allow me to illustrate this with a real life example from my own life. About a week ago I posted a poem on my Facebook profile by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke that deals with the topic of lamentation. For me it was a simply a wonderful poem that somehow put into words how I felt in dealing with my grief. Very soon, a well-meaning friend posted a comment on my post, in which he chided for choosing a path of lamentation and tried to encourage me to choose another path.
It pains me to admit that my response was less than gracious, I broke my own rule of not answering someone in anger and I blasted him for “babbling on” about “positive thinking ”. I simply wanted to express my feelings and immediately I had someone who (out of his own concern) wanted to make things better.
Then I realized, we all tend to do that: none of us wish to dwell on the “negative”. When we are sad, unhappy, depressed or grieving we try our best to get out of that state of being as soon as possible. I guess this is only human nature, but, the downside of this approach is that we don’t get to experience the gifts that a so-called “Dark Night of the Soul” can bring to us. We also tend to flit through our emotions, be they “good” or “bad” and don’t realise that we actually lead very superficial lives.
I love the book of Psalms, for me they deal with the raw, real and deep seated emotions which constitute our human nature and the Psalms do so without sugar coating things or by using pious words and phrases.
For the purpose of this meditation, I would like us to focus on one Psalm in particular, Psalm 88- a Psalm of Lamentation. Unlike all the other Psalms, it does not end in praise! As succinctly put by a fellow blogger, Isaac (a Mennonite pastor), it has a “troubling ending. It ends without resolution. The reader is draw into despair, into the darkness where lonely emptiness is the only companionship one can find.”
I now would like to quote this Psalm in full:
A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1 O LORD, the God who saves me,
day and night I cry out before you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, O LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry to you for help, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, O LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.
We don’t know the background of the writer of this Psalm: maybe he/she was someone who suffered from a terminal disease and lost loved ones in the same disease? Perhaps he or she lost loved ones and wrote about his/her grief and despair?
Whatever the case may be, I believe that we can all identify with the feelings of despair, depression, grief, fear, sadness and loneliness conveyed in this Psalm.
More so, I believe that these experiences become more acute when you are grieving for the loss of a loved one. Those who grief often feel disconnected from the rest of the world, in that your grief somehow sets you apart and make it difficult for people to deal with you: “I am set apart with the dead… You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.”
It has been my experience that people either avoid those who are grieving because they don’t know how to deal with them, or because they feel intimated by the overwhelming emotions surrounding a grieving person. Or, on the other hand, by using phrases like “It was God’s will”, “Don’t worry, he/she is now in a better place”, or even, “It’s a part of life”, well-meaning people try to convey some form comfort to the grieving person.
However, the sense of disconnect remains and it is something that a grieving person will have to deal with on his/her own way. Most of us are aware of the traditional stages of grieving and the emotions accompanying them: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance, but few of us realise that these stages do not follow a logical or even linear progression.
And, if you, like me, you have grown up as a Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian, you are almost programmed to try and seek a speedy resolution to your grief or to try and find some way to put a “positive spin” on things so that we can “Praise the Lord”.
Matt Woodley, the author of “The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God”, puts it very succinctly when he answers a question about the need for darkness when people engage in a deeper life of prayer and I believe that what he says can also be said about the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition I grew up in:
Our evangelical tradition loves to emphasize the dramatic upside of prayer and worship. Being with Jesus makes us happy. Worship music makes us happy. Darkness is quickly dispelled as we align our lives with God’s good will for our lives. Some of this is true, but there’s another equally valid tradition in Christian spirituality. John of the Cross called it being in the whale’s belly or the horrenda noche, “the horrible night.” Sometimes we just hurt, groan and ache and there aren’t easy resolutions. A few praise songs and bright lights won’t fix the sadness in our hearts. Sometimes we’re utterly desperate for God. Sometimes prayers go unanswered and we’re not sure why. We may want to rail against God and argue with God—a practice which God encourages.
In the same interview he elaborates on this thought when says, “Grace: It all begins with God, not with us. God wants to meet us. God wants us to come to him—with our anguish, our questions, our desperation, our longing and even our complaints against him”. Authenticity is the keyword here: “Talk, engage, respond to me. Anything is better than the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. Argue, rant, rave, yell, disagree, but don’t just sit there. Or worse, don’t come to me with pious, pretty words that are empty and fake.”
I think that what we need to realise that sometimes we don’t have the answers, but that we need to live the question instead. As Rilke said:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Eugene Mouton is 28 years old and lives in Melville, Johannesburg. He studied theology at the (then) Rand Afrikaans University. He is currently working in Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He has found a spiritual home with fellow believers at Die Kapel, a gay friendly church in Melville. He still has a burning passion for spirtuality and has started his own website dealing with spirituality: www.holism.co.za. Except for spirituality, his interests include reading, writing, poetry, music, Facebook, watching dvds and going out with his friends.