A few days ago, I came across a news article on the BBC’s website which began with this photograph. Aside from the rather generous hues of rust that embalm the ship’s side, things look fairly normal. That is until you realize that this ship is a 150-foot Japanese squid fishing vessel that was ousted from its harbor by last year’s tsunami. Since the tsunami, the ship, which has been drifting crew-less in the waters of the Pacific, has made an arduous transoceanic passage only to be recently spotted around 120 miles off the coast of Canada.
There was something very sad to me about the story of this lonesome, abandoned ship. In many ways it’s a tangible and surreal reminder of a very recent and horrific tragedy (the gravity of which I cannot even begin to imagine). It’s also a haunting portrait of the fragility of both man and his technology in the face of nature’s sheer force. Most of all, it communicates something about a journey that we all navigate in one form or another.
In private correspondence to Jean-Baptist Leroy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Tempting though it is to offer my scintillating political commentary on taxes (which will undoubtedly convince many of you that I am at heart a Marxist bedfellow), it is death that is my focus in this piece. Not necessarily a literal, conclusive death where we breathe our last breath, but death in the sense of losing things which we love, treasure, and hold on to. It seems to me that life is replete with these sorts of small deaths – saying goodbye to our families and friends to attend university, leaving one place of residence or “home” for another, experiencing moments when our dreams or our ideas of love and life do not materialize exactly as we hoped – these are but a few examples of the unavoidable mortalities of the heart that are part and parcel of being human.
In truth, we face death in many forms before beholding its final, unflinching gaze. Given this inevitability, it’s in our best interests to reflect on how to grieve these losses well if we are to have any hope of being nourished rather than being overtaken by them.
After extensive research, primarily based on conducting interviews with over 500 dying patients, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book in 1969 entitled On Death and Dying in which she sought to articulate an anatomy of grief. The originally-titled Kübler-Ross model outlines five stages of grief and while they are greatly helpful in my opinion, it is worth mentioning that because human beings are unique, their experience of each stage will be similarly unique. Some may even remain in one stage or another. Nonetheless, here are the five stages:
I once read a story about a man who visited a psychotherapist, convinced that he was dead. After expending much effort to convince the patient otherwise (probably including such irrefutable arguments as “You are an idiot”), the psychotherapist asked the patient if dead people bleed. “Most certainly not,” replied the patient. Seeing his opportunity, the psychotherapist quickly pricked the patient with a little needle, drawing a small drop of blood. “So,” said the psychotherapist, “you still think you’re dead?” “My goodness,” replied the patient, “dead people do bleed.”
There is something in all of us that doesn’t want to acknowledge truth. Doing so is often too perplexing, too painful, too much. Nobody wants to bear taxing mental and emotional consequences and the best way to avoid these things is to deny the veracity of whatever would cause them. This is illogical to be sure, but such behavior is a survival mechanism whose primary function is the delaying of pain. Most of us are ill-equipped to deal with pain when it first rears its head; at its best, denial furnishes us with time to prepare ourselves.
When we finally begin to confront the reality of loss – however great or small – our first authentic emotional response is often anger. We not only wonder why we have to experience the loss (“Why me?), but express anger at the perceived injustice of our having to do so (“Why me?”). A natural outworking of anger is often to assign blame to parties (e.g. circumstances, people, or God) who are believed to bear responsibility in one way or another for inducing our loss. There is no greater suffering than suffering that has no cause; no rhyme or reason. One of the functions of blame-assignment is that it removes the sting of arbitrariness and randomness from the picture, thereby making sense of suffering by clarifying its source or origin.
Although anger is quite a visceral emotion, it is not a primary one and people who express anger are often experiencing deeper feelings of hurt or fear. If we or they are to have any hope of processing these deeper feelings, it’s important to allow for honest expressions of anger – however misguided they may seem. Though they are a peripheral kind of grief, these expressions are are often the harness which lowers us into more subterranean emotional territory.
In this stage of grief, we have acknowledged the reality of loss, and this acknowledgement brings about a posture where, depending on the magnitude of the perceived loss, we’re willing to do almost anything to negotiate the terms of reality in our favor. The parties we assigned blame to in our anger are often the same parties with which we seek treaty.
One of the most stunning depictions of bargaining is of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There, confronted with the grief of losing his life (not to mention other things whose theological implications are beyond the scope of this piece), he pleads amidst a crowd of tears that God grant some alternate outcome. Although we may never find ourselves in so cosmic a scenario, we too beg in our own way that the bitter cups of life pass us by (often promising to change or be better in exchange). In so doing, we are acquainted with an important facet of grief.
Bargaining has value because it makes us aware of our powerlessness. Though there is much in life under our supervision, there is far more than we think that is not. In addition to grieving the obvious loss at hand, we are also grieving something deeper – our loss of control. In this sense, bargaining dissolves some of our kingship into peasantry – a truly bitter cup for us moderns who are accustomed to being the measure of all things. Drinking this cup can be an important inward movement of humility.
In essence, depression or sadness is the emotional center of grief. After all, is there a more appropriate response to loss? The experience of sadness – especially when relatively free from the influence of denial, anger, or bargaining – demonstrates that a person has come to terms with the finality or certainty of loss. This finality can lead to a sense of hopelessness or lethargy, where we struggle to discern the point in going on and are inclined toward a kind of emotional resignation. Ultimately, the weight of loss seems so profound that we fear we will lose ourselves.
Nonetheless, though the irrevocability of loss and all it entails is an immense prospect indeed, in attending to these things we enter into a sacred space – terrifying yet real – where we what we feel more closely mirrors what is true. Until this moment, we do not perceive the visage of loss fully. And yet, much like a shipbuilder who must consider the ocean’s complexities and nuances before deeming a vessel seaworthy, it is only as we trace the contours of loss to the point of being overwhelmed that we find a hope of moving forward.
There is a quiet triumph in even reading this word in the context of grief isn’t there? There is also an understandable disbelief that acceptance is even possible after the tumult of the other stages.
Acceptance is Jesus in the garden relinquishing himself into God’s will. It is Joel and Clementine at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (warning: spoiler alert) saying “Okay.” Were it not for the exertion and exhaustion of prior stages, acceptance would be a cheap sentiment in the grieving process. Like all things worthwhile, it is a product of genuine struggle, but wonderfully it also marks a ceasing of struggle.
Not that we become happy or that loss is subverted or circumvented. Rather, we make peace with whatever we were so earnestly contending with. We experience rest. Ever so slowly, we realize that what we once thought so indispensable, we can quite mysteriously do without. And this, my friends, is no insignificant seedling of hope.
As I have reflected on the ship above – taking in its rusty, battered frame and the length of time it has been at sea – I feel there is a some depiction of rest to be found, there in the cadence of waves and wind. I’m not sure what losses you are facing or where you are in your grieving, but I wish you safe passage as you seek that distant shore. I know that each voyage is difficult and often excruciating. And yet somehow, perhaps after a few more days, months, or even years, it will finally come into view and we will be home.