One thing I have learned in the past couple of years is that we do not grieve just once. We move through loss and, with work and compassion toward self and others, we can also move forward. What is fascinating to me is how—when confronted with subsequent losses—we also move back in time.
My friend Ann clued me in to this phenomenon a few weeks ago when Brian, the husband of our mutual childhood friend, died of liver cancer. Here’s how Ann put it: “When my father died, my mother had already been gone for a couple of years. But losing him felt like I had also just lost her—it was that fresh. Now that Brian is gone, it’s as if Stephen Eckl has died all over again.”
This past weekend, I got a taste of exactly what Ann was describing. I had flown to Montana to attend the memorial service of my dear friend, colleague, and spiritual brother Will. It was a poignant event that included the reunion of many friends who hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade.
I had already done a lot of processing with others by phone and email. So, while deeply saddened by the loss of this wonderful person, I was doing okay—until I saw Will’s photo on the program and the service began.
Suddenly, I was in a time warp—simultaneously in the church in Montana and a chapel in Colorado where Stephen’s service had taken place in 2008. The grief was fresh—even raw. Sobs welled up in my throat and my heart broke all over again. Two and a half years’ time span between events collapsed into a single moment.
Intellectually, I knew this was different. (Although they were both very private Scorpio men, Will was not Stephen.) But grief didn’t care. To grief, loss is loss. Any loss relates to all losses. And dramatic loss means plunging into the depths of being—regardless of the cause or the timetable. This is the way of grief that I have espoused—so I went with it and once more found healing, resolution, and blessing.
I have come to sense grief as a wise spirit that includes at its core a spirit of worship. I have said before—and my weekend experience confirms—that the pain of separation we feel in any great loss can actually unlock the heart to receive the presence of the Divine Comforter, if we will allow it.
Deep personal loss is so painful. It is astonishingly physical; and, like a severe bodily wound, it can take a long time to heal. In my case, it was a year before the Stephen-sized piece of my heart he took with him grew back.
It is natural to grit our teeth and just press on so we are not overcome with the pain of immediate loss as well as the compounding and reactivation of every previous loss. I believe this is one reason why we need community to help us stay with and express our grief rather than denying or dissociating from it.
So here is what I witnessed this weekend as over two hundred people joined in tribute to a great man’s life:
- Open, authentic, and mutual sadness from all those who had loved Will
- Compassion for one another as well as for his family
- Joy that so many long-time friends had come together for this event
- Celebration of the spirit of community that was rekindled
- Genuine appreciation of how we have touched one another’s lives
- And, through the agency of our tears, heartfelt gratitude for the Spirit that had originally brought us all together so many years ago.
As we celebrated the life of our brother Will, we wept—not only for our loss, but also in recognition of our unity. In those precious hours of communion, I believe many experienced a compression of previous losses into this single one. But—because we were together—it was easier to also feel the timeless bond of brotherhood that, once forged, is truly eternal.
And sadness turned to a poignant joy. This was a love-fest with more hugs than I have ever experienced in one place. We cried hard; but, by the end of the day, we were laughing much harder. And as we made our way home, many of us felt that Will’s memorial service—which his wife, daughter, and others so beautifully crafted—was actually his greatest service of all. Because it allowed us to follow the spirit of grief all the way through a process of collective transformation.
So now I understand another facet of grief’s wisdom. The ability of any loss to compress time into an experience of all loss means we must be mindful of processing each loss as it comes—lest it compound into a pain too difficult to bear. But this phenomenon also means that the possibility of ever-deeper healing is always present. And the more trustingly we follow the wisdom of grief, the more surely we will experience the spirit of worship that awaits those who truly mourn.