Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
The first reading is an excerpt from the poem “Two Dreams” by Margaret Atwood:
Sitting at noon over the carrot salad
my sister and I compare dreams.
She says, Father was there
in some kind of very strange nightgown
covered with bristles, like a hair shirt.
He was blind, he was stumbling around
bumping into things, and I couldn’t stop crying.
I say, Mine was close.
He was still alive, and all of it
was a mistake, but it was our fault..
He couldn’t talk, but it was clear
he wanted everything back, the shoes, the binoculars
we’d given away or thrown out.
He was wearing stripes, like a prisoner.
We were trying to be cheerful,
but I wasn’t happy to see him:
now we would have to do the whole thing over again….
The second reading is from a book by Elaine Pagels titled Why Religion?: A Personal Memoir. In this book, she tells about her son Mark’s death, followed by the death of her husband a year later, and how she made sense of their deaths.
“Shaken by emotional storms, I realized that choosing to feel guilt, however painful, somehow seemed to offer reassurance that such events did not happen at random. During those dark, interminable days of Mark’s illness, I couldn’t help imagining that somehow I’d caused it If guilt is the price we pay for the illusion that we have some control over nature, many of us were willing to pay it. I was. To begin to release the weight of guilt, I had to let go of whatever illusion of control it pretended to offer, and acknowledge that pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.”
Sermon: “The Problem with Grief”
The sermon this morning is titled “The Problem with Grief.” So there is no suspense, I’ll tell you right up front what the problem is with grief: Grief seems to be cumulative. That is, all the individual instances of grief we happen to experience in life seem to add up. And a lot of times the total sum of grief seems to add up to more than all the individual instances of grief. The memoir by Elaine Pagels, from which came the second reading this morning, is a perfect example of what I mean. In that memoir, Elaine Pagels tells about how her son died, and then a year later her husband died. As you read her memoir, it becomes clear that these two overwhelming experiences of grief, happening so close together, added up to something more than each experience of grief on its own. And this tallies with my own less intense experiences of grief: when I was grieving one thing, I seemed to be extra sensitive to other feeling of grief.
So why is this a problem? Grieving has been a fact of life for human beings as long as there have been human beings. Surely we should be accustomed to it by now. Except that this has becomm a problem because there are at least two major sources of societal grief right now.
First of all, there’s the grief that we’re all feeling as climate change and other environmental problems become more pronounced. Lack of ice in the Arctic, too much plastic in the oceans, diminishing natural habitats near us: there are so many environmental changes to grieve. A field biologist friend calls this “eco-grief,” the grief that comes from the knowledge of the looming ecological disaster.
In addition to that, most of us are experiencing pandemic grief. This is the grief that most of society continues to experience every time people remember what we lost during the pandemic. Of course there are people for whom the pandemic went smoothly, and they don’t have any personal pandemic grief. But even if you’re not experiencing pandemic grief yourself, you’re surrounded by people who are. It is endemic in our society right now.
Thus nearly all of us are experiencing the effects of both eco-grief and pandemic grief. These add up with whatever individual grief we happen to be experiencing. The sum total is a lot of grief.
That’s it. Now you’ve heard the whole point of this sermon. Now there’s no more suspense, and you know the worst. If you want to check out now and stare out the window, I’ll try to talk softly.
Now that you know the problem with grief, I’d like to devote the rest of the sermon to talking about how we can manage grief — how we can manage it both individually, and as a community. What can we do to make ourselves feel better?
First of all, let’s talk about guilt. Grief and guilt often seem to come hand-in-hand. In the second reading, Elaine Pagels talks about the guilt she felt while she was grieving. She felt tremendous guilt after the death of her son. Surely she could have done more for him. Surely she could have fought more aggressively for treatment for him. Looking back, knowing his medical problems, she worried about what choices she made that might have made his situation worse. She felt guilty that she didn’t do more for him. She felt guilty that she didn’t advocate more aggressively for him. She felt guilty about choices she made that she thought might have made him worse. The guilt was dragging her down, and she had to find a way to deal with it.
This mixture of grief and guilt happens to all of us. A friend dies, and we think: I should have reached out more, I should have been there for them. We think about the state of the environment, and we think: I should have gotten rid of that gas-guzzling car sooner. A parent or a spouse dies, and we think: I should have done more for them. I should have done this. I should not have done that. Those feelings of “should-have-done” are what lead us into guilt.
But Elaine Pagels points out that when you’re feeling guilty, it is because you have convinced yourself that you have a great deal of control over your life, and that you have a great deal of control over the lives of those close to you. After my father went into his final illness, my sisters and I talked a lot about what we should have done differently:– we should have talked Dad out of thus-and-so, we should have told him to get a second opinion… there were many things we felt we should have done differently. But after his death, when we could think more calmly, it became clear to us that we had done the best we could with what we knew at the time. It’s easy to look back on the past and say, “I should have known.” But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t know, nor could we have known.
This gets at a fundamental theological point. We human beings do not have a lot of control over our lives. We like to think we have a lot of control over our lives. We almost have to live our lives as though we have a lot of control. But in reality, we really don’t have as much control as we’d like to believe.
This is one area where the conservative Christians maybe have an advantage over us. For them, God controls absolutely everything, and once they die they feel fairly secure that they’re going to go up to heaven and everything will be fine. We Unitarian Universalists live in a more complex reality. We acknowledge the possibility of random events; that is, God does not control absolutely everything. We acknowledge the possibility that well-intentioned actions can have unanticipated consequences; that is, even when we are doing out best to do what is right, things can go wrong. As for an afterlife, some of us believe a pleasant afterlife, and since we are Universalists we know we all get to go to heaven. Some of us, like Socrates, see death as the most perfect night of sleep you could ever have, untroubled by dreams or fitfulness. Some of us are quite content with oblivion. But nearly all of us tend to focus on this world, not the next world. We worry less about what happens after death, and more about what happens here in this life. We want to make this world better. We believe that we have the ability, and the free will, to make this life better. In short, we are perfect candidates for guilt.
Back in the 1970s, the Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that within Unitarian Universalism, while the theists among us believe in God, and the humanists among us don’t believe in God, both parties believe in “radical [human] freedom and autonomy.” We are all existentialists. We have been thrown into an absurd world, and it is up to us to make meaning out of that world. The way we make meaning is through our actions. We cannot know all possible results of our actions, and fairly often our actions result in unforeseen consequences — because it is simply impossible for us to foresee every consequence of each action we take.
If we can seriously acknowledge this, we have taken the first step towards releasing ourselves from some of the burden of guilt that we might carry around. We do the best we can, knowing that oftentimes things are not going to turn out as we had hoped. There will always be things we could not anticipate. Of course we’ll still feel guilty about decisions we made that didn’t turn out well. But once we can accept that we have less control than we’d like to think, guilt will have a lot less power over us.
Once guilt has less power over us, then grief becomes a lot more manageable. If we’re not spending all our time thinking: “I should’ve done this,” or “I should’ve done that” — once we relieve ourselves of some of the burden of guilt, then we can actually do something with our grief.
Which brings me to the next point. Grieving is usually a fairly lengthy process, and there’s no good way to speed it up. I’ve learned a lot about the grieving process from hospice workers. They typically tell us that after someone close to you dies, the most intense grieving will take about a year, often with a moment of intense grief on the first anniversary of that person’s death. Then, so they tell us, we can expect another year of somewhat less intense grief. After the second anniversary of that person’s death, the grief tapers off to a much more manageable level. Of course everyone is different, but the general experience of hospice nurses and hospice chaplains tells us that after someone close to us dies, most of us can expect about two years of grief.
However, our society expects us to be done with grieving in a few weeks. As a minister, I’ve noticed this again and again. I’ll watch as someone loses a spouse, or a parent, and they get a lot of support from their workplace for about two weeks, and from their friends for about two months. Then they’re expected to be back to normal. Yet what I’ve seen again and again — and what I’ve experienced myself after the death of each of my parents — is that the worst of time grief seems to come about three months in, give or take a month. It’s at about three months in when the numbness wears off, and suddenly the feelings of grief become most acute. And three months is past the time when our society expects us to be done with grieving, when everyone expects us to be “back to normal.”
But if you try to get “back to normal” too quickly, you can actually prolong your grief. During those two years of more intense grief, you have to take the time to allow yourself to grieve. If your life if filled with busy activity, allowing you no time to grieve, what seems to happen is that it takes longer than two years to get through the worst of grief. This, by the way, is one reason some people come here to attend Sunday services. Quite a few people start coming to Sunday services in the aftermath of the death of someone close to them. They come here to have some time for themselves, where they can grieve without being interrupted. Because you can sit here, going through the motions — pretending that you’re listening to the sermon, standing up and mouthing the words to the hymns — but what you’re really doing is dealing with grief. We need places like this, where we are allowed to sit and grieve if we need to.
Our society doesn’t allow much space for grieving. Yes, we have developed grief support groups, and you can go see a therapist. You can install a grief app on your phone to help you grieve. Unfortunately, our society wants us to use grief groups and therapy and grief apps to hasten the grieving process, so that people can become more productive. That’s what our society wants us to do — be more productive. Whereas actually what we need is time to just be — we need to spend less time doing, less time doing therapy and doing grief group and doing our grief app — we need to spend more time just being human.
Trying to hurry through grief doesn’t work. Of course you should use a grief app if that works for you. Of course you should see a therapist if you can afford it and if that will help you in your grieving. Of course you should participate in a grief support group if that’s going to help you. But don’t expect these things are going to make the grieving end more quickly. If you try to hurry through your grief, it will come back later to haunt you — just like a ghost in those old ghost stories. When we try to hurry through grief, what we are actually doing is ignoring our essential humanity. We are trying to pretend that we are machines that just need a little metaphorical oil to function more smoothly. We are trying to pretend that we are computers that happen to have a software bug called grief, and if we just get the right app, or if we just update our operating system, we can get rid of this bug. As a minister, I see this happening again and again. People try to hurry through grief, they try to hack their grief, they try to fix their grief as if grief is something that is broken — and it doesn’t work. You can’t hurry grief. You can’t hack grief. You can’t fix grief.
Grief happens when someone we love, or something we love, is gone. If you want to get rid of grief, the only way to do that is by getting rid of love. If you don’t love anything, then you won’t grieve; you will be nothing more than a machine. Once you open your heart to love, you open yourself to the possibility of grief.
This brings me to the final point I’d like to make about grief. Grief happens when something or someone you love is gone. From this, a logical consequence follows: When we are surrounded by love, then we will be supported in times of grief. Family, friends, and/or communities like First Parish can surround us with love. Love is what we need as we move through grief.
Because of this, it makes sense to strengthen our ties with those groups where we can be surrounded by love. For many of us, our immediate families will be one of the most important groups to surround us with love. (However, I do want to acknowledge that not everyone’s immediate family has the possibility of being filled with love, and sometimes some of us have to get out of our immediate families.) But even those of us with immediate families that are filled with love need something beyond our immediate families. To that end, we might cultivate circles of friends and acquaintances. Even more important, in my opinion, are communities like First Parish, organized communities of friends and acquaintances where we share common values and where there are mechanisms in place the help us reach out to one another. We need communities like First Parish where people know what it is to grieve, and where people know what it is to love.
All this takes time. Strengthening our families takes time. Building networks of friends and acquaintances takes time. Making caring communities like First Parish takes time. Yet we are pressured by society to spend less and less time on these things. We are pressured by society to spend more and more time being busy and productive.
I’d like to suggest that this is where we want to be counter-cultural. Let’s resist that pressure to be busy and productive all the time. Let’s strengthen our families, nurture our friendships, be part of communities like First Parish. These are the things that allow us to be fully human.
To grieve is to be human. To love is to be human. And maybe this is the real problem with grief these days, and the problem with love — our society does not value the time we need to spend in being human. But I would suggest to you that you will find it to be worth your while to become more human, even if that means you are less productive. Become more human. Fill your life with love. That is what we are meant to do.