Twenty-eight years ago this morning–at about 3:00am–I was awoken to the news that my wife of two years, eleven months and eight days had died during the night.
Sheila and I agreed that she would undergo corrective back surgery so that she could carry a child full term. We had already experienced one miscarriage and would like to avoid another. We decided to have the surgery with her life-long doctor in Atlanta, Georgia. While she recuperated at her parent’s home in North Georgia I would complete my reponsibilities at Potter Orphan School and complete my M.A. at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY.
Ten days after her surgery, while she was recuperating at her parent’s home, a blood clot entered her heart and stopped it…on April 30, 1980.
I was devastated. Our dreams, hopes and plans for the future were gone in a single moment. It was a sudden tear in my universe that left me–seemingly–nothing. The future would be totally unlike the past; the future would be totally different than what we had planned and what I had anticipated.
In recent months I have focused my personal and spiritual energy on living through my past grief traumas; to relive them in order to better integrate them into my psyche. A vivid memory that has recently come back to me through this process is how embarrassed I was to be practically carried out of Sheila’s funeral to the waiting cars for the drive to the burial place. Everyone saw my grief; everyone saw my “weakness.” I felt exposed. This has had a profound affect on my subsequent grief–more than I would really care to admit.
I don’t know how many have shared that sense of embarrassment with me or if I was the only one but it was real for me. Perhaps the embarrassment of grieving so deeply, so openly, and so despondently was perhaps rooted in my lack of experience in grieving, perhaps in the church’s lack of modeling grief, perhaps in my own personality, perhaps in my inexperience with biblical laments, perhaps in the cultural image of “big boys don’t cry,” perhaps in a faulty theology of hope (“she is in a better place, so don’t cry”), perhaps a false sense of what male strength is, perhaps…. Well, there are many reasons and perhaps all of them with an element of truth.
I know, however, that sense of embarrassment has shaped me in unconscious ways. It has prevented, to some degree, deep grieving in other losses–at least public grief. It has moved me toward avoiding my grief rather than fully embracing it and experiencing it. Despite my intellectual knowledge of grief, lament and tears, I had not let myself fully grieve. I wanted to avoid the embarrassment as well as the pain. I did not want to live through that grief again; I did not want to feel it since I knew how awful it felt.
I am grateful that in the last fifteen years or so the church has increasingly acknowledged the function, role and need of lament within the community of faith. As lament is taught, modeled and experienced, the kind of embarrassment that I felt on May 2, 1980 is less likely and the opportunities to fully experience grief are enlarged. When the community laments, we grievers do not feel so alone. I think I am over that embarrassement now–partly because I am grieving, partly because I have immersed myself in the biblical laments in the past ten years, partly because I have sat with others in their grief–but it is an image that lingers in my mind in subtle ways. I think embarrassment is part of my past now rather than my present but it is also part of my history. That, too, I must integrate into my psyche by the power of God’s Spirit.
Psalm 6, though primarily about physical healing, is a text I read through the lens of psychological healing. I hear myself in that prayer; I hear the yearnings of my own heart. The New Living Translation provides a vivid translation.
2 Have compassion on me, Lord, for I am weak.
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
3 I am sick at heart.
How long, O Lord, until you restore me?
4 Return, O Lord, and rescue me.
Save me because of your unfailing love.
6 I am worn out from sobbing.
All night I flood my bed with weeping,
drenching it with my tears.
7a My vision is blurred by grief;
8 Go away, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
Tears are wonderful healers; they are divine healers. Tears release emotional stress; biochemically, tears of grief release chemicals that have built up during emotional stress. These tears have a different chemical composition than other kinds of tears. Grief tears release physiological, pyschological and spiritual toxicity. They are God’s gift to humanity to process the hurt of a painful world.
Psalm 6 is my lament–a reminder that tears are healthy. They are not an embarrassement though I have often held back the tears because I feared embarrasment. Instead, tears are part of healing. Those who live through the tears will reap the joy of healing (a paraphrase of Psalm 126:6).
I’ve had a good cry today. I feel better. I feel some of the healing that God intends for tears to bring us. Thanks for listening.