This blog post is based on a Yom Kippur evening sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October, 2022. For the complete series, click here. Video is available here.
What is the purpose of grief? If we believe in evolution, then human nature is a product of gradual change and survival advantages. Grief could have been a direct advantage for those who could mourn over those who could not. OR perhaps the ability to mourn was NOT a big advantage in itself, but grief was connected to other parts of our mental makeup that were. Grief could have been an accidental side effect. Evolutionary psychology is part art and part science, as was much of Freud’s original psychology to be honest. So in the spirit of rabbinic midrash, another art where multiple explanations can be true at the same time, grief could have come from many sources to evolve into the important part of our life it is today.
The direct survival advantage of grief? Mourning enables us to let out the anger and stress and sadness that otherwise would build up within us and explode, endangering our relationships with living family and community and thus our support network. Expressing grief can also leave us tired enough to sleep when we need to care for ourselves too. And grief inspires empathy from others who are thus motivated to help support us when we are less able to support ourselves – those shiva trays and meal trains are not just cultural after all!
Grief as a side effect of other essential features of our emotional life? Grief happens when we love, when we care for other people, when we are engaged in the well-being of our community. Grief results from our staying alive and maintaining relationships. Last year, met a long-time KH member for lunch whose first wife’s funeral I officiated over 15 years ago. I also married him to second wife years later, and in general for him life is good. At this moment, he was grieving, having recently attended the funeral of one of his best and oldest friends. The longer he has lived, he has been able to experience grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the joys of life, but longer life also has meant attending more and more funerals for long-time friends and family. There is no easy answer for this challenge, this side effect, because a longer life will result in saying goodbye many times before we ourselves are the guest of honor. Unless we cut ourselves off, refuse to make new friends and new partnerships, unless we declare “I am a rock, I am an island that feels no pain and never cries.” That would not be living our best life while we can live it. Our intention is to love and be loved and be loving; if this sometimes produces grief, it also produces joy. And over the course of our lives, the joy is worth it.
However, sometimes the rhythm of joy and grief seems to tip too far to one side. All the tragedies of the past decade, I do not want to list them all and I do not need to – this December will be TEN YEARS since Sandy Hook, and think of all that has happened since then. We are on grief overload. Anger and sadness and loss have piled up until we don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t think we evolved to be able handle this great a cascade of grief and pain. And so we have to be forgiving of ourselves – the usual cycle of grief and recovery, the old model of stages of grief, we need to prepare ourselves and be flexible enough to face something different. Some days will be overwhelming, others manageable. Sometimes we will be able to use our grief to better love our loved ones, and to respond to our pain with action and advocacy. Some days the wave may get the better of us, and then we sleep, and the sun comes up, and another day begins with its own rhythms and possibilities.
There are no easy answers to any grief: new grief or old grief, individual or collective grief, public or private grief. Grief is a part of any life that has love. It’s a paradox, a circle: grief might be the accidental result of a loving connection, yet grief can also be a reminder of the love we still feel for someone who is gone. If we can accept our grief as part of our best lives, then it can be a source of love too.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
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Love this – and the last poem – perfect ending! Thank you for sharing.