Good Grief

Message Manuscript of “Good Grief”
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, November 4, 2012

Have you ever had a broken bone?  Not much fun is it?  The healing of bones is possible, yet it a slow process.  For some, it is complicated and even prevented by things that get in the way of healing. Yvonne Divita, on her blog Scratch and Sniff wrote about how her broken arm didn’t heal properly.  The doctors called it a non-union fracture.  The bones were not able to unite as they should and remained broken.  She learned what it takes for a bone to heal,

The process is pretty basic. The first stage right after the injury involves the formation of a blood clot and fibroblasts to form kind of an internal version of a scab that starts to hold everything together. The second stage involves the formation of a bony callous and in the third stage this bony callous is remodeled and hardened until the fracture site is as strong as before the original injury. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen. However, in some cases it doesn’t go that well. If the bones are not aligned properly or if the fracture is not stabilized adequately, things can go badly. Malnutrition can also cause problems as can smoking, excessive drinking and systemic corticosteroid use.

Divita goes on to write that her lack of healing was more from ignoring or not respecting the process than from one of the four things just mentioned.  She continued to use the arm, even lifting a dumbbell and preparing for a bike race. She didn’t allow it to heal properly, which just caused more problems.

As we observe All Saints Day this morning in our service, as we mourn the loss of our loved ones, we must realize that there is a natural, healing process that takes place, but one that can be prevented by our actions.  Our text today from Ruth 1:1-18, one of the most beautiful portions of Scripture, reminds us of how grief is to work; of how it is to be good grief.

First, grief is good when it comes out of our sorrow.  While this seems like a given, it is not always so for everyone experiencing grief.  Some people choose to live in denial of their sorrow, pushing it away from them.  If they don’t acknowledge it, then it is not there.  It can have no effect on them, their reasoning goes.  This was not so with Naomi here in our text today.  The author of Ruth told of how Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, had died, leaving her with two sons to raise.  The death of a husband is never easy for a wife, but even more so in Naomi’s time and culture.  She had no means of income, no status in society, no future for her children.  Ten years later, she would experience the grief of the loss of her two sons as well.  Her grief and sorrow are revealed in her words to her daughter-in-law, Ruth, that the hand of the Lord was against her. (v.13) The Message translation phrases her words in this way, this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.[1]  She had sunk to the depths of her sorrow to where she believed that not even God could help her.  Her grief was real.  It was experienced.  It was verbalized.

One thing we have done here this morning in our service is to acknowledge the reality and pain of our grief.  Each one of us who has lit a candle here on the table and mentioned the name of a loved one.  We have remembered not only them, but the physical absence of their presence in our lives.  Even though this doesn’t mean that each one of us has dealt with our grief in a positive way, it does show that we are no longer in denial.  Someone is missing from our lives.  Someone has moved on, leaving us behind with our incomplete lives to live.  It could be that you, like Naomi, have arrived at that place in your grief where you have concluded to yourself and to others that the hand of the Lord is against you as well.  As we discovered a fews ago with Job, it is ok to have such thoughts. It is better than living in denial of our loss.  It is one of the first steps to allowing good grief to rise out of our sorrow.

Another thing we see about good grief is that it comes when you share it with others. This is what Naomi found in her community, especially with her daughters-in-law.  She had her sons to comfort her and keep her going through the years, but now they were gone.  She must have been an incredible mother-in-law, as both daughters-in-law wanted to continue on with her.  Naomi told them to move on with their lives and to accept the fact that they had no obligation to care for her and there wasn’t any use waiting around for her to have another child for them to marry. Orpah chose to go back to a new life, but Ruth couldn’t leave Naomi.  Her commitment to Naomi was unending, as evident in her statement to her:  “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Ruth is a powerful example of what it means to be a caregiver in the midst of grief, even though she was grieving as well.  She knew Naomi needed her, just as she knew she needed Naomi.  Grief for Ruth was not to be a solo act, but lived out with the help and strength of other people.  Though we don’t know all of the details about Naomi, we are left with the impression that she is a good example of someone who tries to make it through grief alone, not wanting to depend on anyone to encourage her out of her sorrows.

Ruth, somewhere along the way, had discovered the strength that comes when grief is shared.  Henri Nouwen has said this about this kind of good grief:  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.[2] Or, as Mark Twain put it, Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. [3] Naomi and Ruth ended up dividing their grief.

As you look at your life of grief today, are you more like Naomi or Ruth?  Are you trying to live out your grief on your own, or in the company of other mourners who are and will be there to support you?  We are probably all more like one or the other at different times.  If you have ever lost someone or something, you are no doubt familiar with the stages of grief.  You deny your loss, become angry, ask the “What if . . .” questions, get depressed, and hopefully one day accept it.  We are like Naomi in that it seems that once we get to the point of acceptance, here comes another loss.  We feel her pain, for we all know loss on one level or another. Though we know the eternal victory of resurrection and can celebrate it with fresh joy of an empty grave, we also know the sorrow of death and ruminate it with the grief of Golgotha.  We have been separated from someone we love and the pain of loss endures until we see them again.

This is where other people come in.  God intends for us to live in such community that we not only celebrate our victories together, we also commemorate our losses.  And, yes, they are “our” losses.  If we are truly living as the body of Christ, as a family, as a new creation of God, then whatever happens to one of us happens to all of us.  Whatever grieves one of us grieves all of us. What a great blessing God has given by creating us with a need for community.  What a help it is to know that you and I journey through life not alone, but with people who care about us and who choose to identify with our pain and sorrow. The Naomi’s of the world don’t have to walk back home alone.  And the Ruth’s of the world don’t have to separate themselves from reminders of their grief, but can find balm for their wounds in the expression of care to someone else who is walking wounded. Each of us has what the other needs, which is why we must be willing to live more like Ruth to each other than Orpah.  We must be willing to be open about our own grief.  We must be willing to help other people who are experiencing their own as well.

In his book, God Can’t Sleep, Palmer Chichen notes that Jewish people have a special way of coming together to help people deal with pain, loss, and grief. He writes:

They call it shiva (which means seven, or sits of seven). When there is a death, the closest family members come together: the father and mother, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and spouses. They come together and sit. But they don’t sit alone: all their friends and family come and sit with them. They sit until the healing begins. They sit because they want you to know you’re not alone in your sorrow.

They sit together for seven days, and here’s what I love about the seventh day—everyone in the community comes on the seventh day, and they walk with them around the block. The subtle message is, You can begin to live again. We know you hurt, and we hurt with you, but you can heal over.[4]

Our church is to be a place of such blessing and care–for the Naomi’s and for the Ruth’s.  It is to be a family who can say to each other in the midst of grief, Where you go, I will go.  Now that is good grief.

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