Good Grief

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

Story for All Ages             

It is important for all of us to know the old stories. It is important for us to know that this day, this Sunday, year after year, for centuries, has been called Palm Sunday. For a very long time, this day has been celebrated by Christians on the Sunday before Easter. It is the time when many retell the story of the man named Jesus, who—finally during his life—was recognized as an important teacher and healer, who on this day rode through crowds of admirers as they welcomed him into the great city of Jerusalem. The crowds shouting Hosanna, Hallelujah, as if he were about to be their King; the crowds with palm fronds honoring him as victor, laying down their outer garments on the path he rode upon like a grand carpet.

Yet everything would change by the end of the week.

It is usually assumed that Jesus was so close to God, he knew what was going to happen in the next few days. But did he?

We Unitarian/Universalists think that while Jesus was alive, he was a human being just like any one of us. Even though some of us humans seem to “know” that our life on this earth will be short, don’t we all hope that if we are kind and courageous, if we are good, if we are admired and celebrated like Jesus was on Palm Sunday, that only good things will follow?

But awful things happen, even to gentle, brave people. Good things can become awful things so fast, from one week to another. We don’t always understand why. Maybe we will know all the answers one day. Maybe we won’t.

Did Jesus know while he was human? That he would die? Did he look back afterward and say, “Wow, I didn’t think it would happen like that?” We hear he was prepared. But can you ever really be ready?

The story we have says that Jesus asked his buddies, the people he had been traveling with in the rural areas outside of Jerusalem, once they were about to enter the big city, not to go and find a big, white horse to carry him into the streets like a real King would have done. Instead, he asked them to find a donkey. Donkeys are short and slow; they go stubbornly forward once they are set on a course. He rode through the crowds cheering for him on the donkey they found. On the donkey, he would not be sitting higher than the people that were celebrating him with their palm fronds. He was eye-to-eye with them. At their level. Not a king; rather a gentle, brave healer; a human, same as those who were cheering him on.

I think we may know how he might have felt that day, entering and passing through Jerusalem, being celebrated like a rock star.


Why is life so hard, so often? Why can’t we just celebrate each other eye-to-eye every day until life is over and we stop breathing and our hearts stop beating? Why can’t we just go peacefully, surrounded by the peaceful goodbye that our loved ones offer us? Why can’t those of us grieving the death of another just pause and be present? Why is there so much pain and denial and suffering?

Why is there so much pain that we hide, that so many of us cover up, pretend isn’t there? Pain that can turn so quickly into life-destroying hate, into vengeance taken? We so want things our way that we waste precious moments, pretending to control what can’t be controlled. Taking moments, lives, that have nothing to do with and aren’t the cause of our pain, in our rush to make it go away.

Why can’t we stop the death, and do what is life-giving?

Rev. Kim, the Unitarian Universalist minister at our sister congregation in Washington Crossing, shared this poem this past week on social media. Listen carefully; it captures something important to hear and to ponder.

The Leash
After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry, to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say: Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe,
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

Ada Limón, from The Carrying (2018)

The truck that comes again and again… the life full of death that won’t stop without a leash.

The author said about this poem, “It’s been so hard to write anything joyful these days with so many terrible things happening everywhere. I finally thought of my dog and how she loves her little life no matter what. This year, I want to be more like her, throwing myself ecstatically into this world over and over regardless of what’s coming next.”

How do we hold the leash? We know, we humans know we will someday die. We know those we love will someday die.

We hold the leash and say, “Don’t die.”

It is as if we are hardwired for life, for life-giving connections, and when those are gone, we can’t fathom what’s next.

When I was 17, my dad suddenly died. His dying changed everything.

I know there are all sorts of stories about death and grieving in your experiences, in your hearts, and perhaps some that you are thinking about right now. We all wish we had said, just before we experienced the death of a loved one—that we had shouted, begged—”don’t die.”

We wish we had a “leash” that we could have used to pull our loved one back from the edge of this life that they fell into, perhaps rushed toward; a leash that we could have used to pull them back from death.

My mother told me after my father died, “You’ve experienced the worst thing that can happen, now you can do anything; there is nothing more to be afraid of.”

After the death of a loved one, or an innocent one, we ask, Are they now part of the thing that they may have hoped would love them back forever?

I am facing my own retirement, and as you might imagine—or already know—retirement is a kind of death, as is losing a job, losing a primary relationship, losing a child, losing a child not yet born, all just some of the too many losses we grieve as humans living this human life.

My therapist has me thinking about, remembering the feelings I had after my Dad was gone. She asks me to feel that grieving process again.

I go back so many years for that to remember. I have.

But I don’t need to. So many terrible things happen to bring me grief every day, again and again.

I’ve been there, when people are dying, as a chaplain, in my life as a family member, in my career as a minister. I have been at the bedside. In the emergency room. In a little room outside of the trauma center. With the families. With my own family. I have been there telling families, when the physician speaks in code and leaves me with them as the “chaplain,” telling families the truth in plain language about death.

I’ve seen beautiful goodbyes, lovely rituals, healing eulogies. I’ve heard dreams. I’ve seen grief that lasts for years and years; that creates poetry, and life, again.

As have so many of you.

It is what we do, we give life back to the grieving.

I was thinking about my church family when I was 17, who gave me and my mother, and my brother and sister, about a month to grieve. Then they moved on to the next family who had lost a loved one. We were expected to be over it.

It wasn’t enough time.

There was an article in Psychology Today just recently about how it takes much longer than we may have previously imagined to “adjust” to the death of a loved one. Our brain has formed what is termed a “neural map.” These are like channels grooved out in the brain that have to do with a loved one. They are not easy to change. The article states:

How the Brain Encodes Our Bonds to Loved Ones
The brain is hardwired to form attachments. It keeps track of our most important relationships along three dimensions: space, time, and depth of the connection. When we are separated, our brain keeps our bond intact by predicting when, where, and whether a reunion is likely to happen. These dimensions are also referred to as here, now, and close, referring to our ability, learned during infancy, to soothe ourselves when separated by calling up a mental representation of our loved one as being here, now, and close.

Our most important bonds are also permanently and deeply encoded in the brain, which develops the implicit knowledge that certain people are special to us and will always be with us. This encoding happens during intimate, intense, loving moments.

Our loved ones become everlasting in our minds.

When a loved one is no longer here, now, or close, the brain’s neural pathways change eventually. But it takes time, it takes ritual, it takes appropriate messaging, it takes the life-giving work that we offer each other to shift who we identified as everlasting—here, now, close—from gone to here again in a different form.

We must live with grief; good grief, we hope.

The poet says that she “wants to live enthusiastically, throw herself ecstatically into this world over and over regardless of what’s coming next.”

I hope we all want that. Yet death comes, as does grieving, again and again, sometimes way too fast, way too often. How do we walk forward in the path of struggle and loss? Together.

Learning to grieve well together.

There was a New York Times article written by a doctor this past week. The doctor, no longer young and inexperienced, says, “A good death should be defined by how well and honestly we care for the dying, not by their performance on our behalf.” The doctor talks about how when they were younger, they waited for the patient to be ready to talk about death, even though they both “knew” the patient was dying. The doctor says, “…expecting them (the patient) to make death a process full of insight and peace only limits our [the caring person’s] full emotional and spiritual participation in their death. By sacrificing neatness, we can have a conversation about what the dying truly need from us. Understanding their authentic experiences helps us not only to see them more fully but also to prepare, together, for losing them.”

What is good grief? It is being present with the person who is dying. Letting them tell you what they need. It is letting the other be gone, standing in the truth of that. It is taking the power of “don’t die” and living our best life as best we can, in the midst of community. That takes time.

It is listening to the spirit of call in the midst of chaos, and it is faith in the midst of fear. It is being within the community that challenges, comforts, hopes, stands together, and celebrates us all, eye-to-eye.

What might a good death be like?

Is it determined by how long or how well one has lived?

Is it when one can say, “I did it all. My bucket list is complete, I’m done”?

Sometimes, it is that.

How many of you have experienced saying goodbye to a loved one as they died?

How many of you have been there, present at the bedside, whether you spoke out loud or not, when a loved one passed on?

Do you want that for yourself? Do you want your loved ones with you when you take your last breath? When your heart finally stops beating?

All of us will die. There has been no medical advance yet that will let any of us escape mortality, and, unfortunately, statistically, most of us will die alone.

For some of us that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Some of us would rather skip the family drama in our last moments. Just slip away in the night. Some of us have experienced the denial, the unresolved feelings, the “I’m not ready for this, so you can’t go attitude” that can come from those who are thinking more of themselves than of us. And we don’t want that.

If there are friends or family with me, I want them to say their goodbyes to me, but I also want any “issues” that there may have been between me and any of my close friends or family to have been long ago resolved or forgotten or forgiven. I want the goodbyes to be free of any conflicted feelings. Sadness is okay, but unfinished business isn’t. I’d rather not engage in that.

Finish your business before it is too late. Tell someone what you want at your death. And when death comes, especially the death of children for horrible reasons, tell your children how much you love them. Tell your grandparents, your cousins, your neighbor, each other. Sadness is okay. But unfinished business is not. May we celebrate each other and the lives we live, every day!

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