When the World Fails to Meet Our Expectations

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

(Heavily borrowed from the sermon “Grief Stories” by Lynn Ungar, who has been the minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship. You can hear or read her sermon here.)

We often think about grief as the feeling that arises when someone we love dies. That kind of feeling is very real. 

If you think about it, though, there are many kinds of grief, small and large, that weave their way through our lives. When we become adults, some of us get good at tamping down our feelings of grief, thinking that others have it far worse than we do. That may be true, but it is also be true that whatever our feelings, small or large, they are our feelings, worthy of recognition.

Most children are not born with any reservations about expressing their feelings. They also have no reservations with making demands that you find their feelings worthy! Toddlers are notorious for their screaming, meltdown tantrums over things that make no sense from an “adult” perspective. My 2-year-old has just stopped the sobbing and wailing he did if any of the adults dared cut up his pancakes or if he was given a broken cookie. He wants his hot cocoa cold, and you had better be ready for the shrieking if his hot cocoa is served warm. 

If you’re a parent, you probably have examples of your own regarding the ways toddlers can express their frustration and grief about how things aren’t meeting their expectation of how things should be. 

It can be exhausting to calmly deal with the screaming fits and the expressions of grief. You may have seen the video a child psychologist made of an enraged, agonized little girl screaming because she wanted to sit at the head of the table that was round.

We adults learn to deal with the way things are, don’t we? 

Maybe not, as all of us experience grief any time the world fails to meet our expectations for how things should be. It is clear that small children have yet to learn the “reasonable” expectations for how the world works.

What about you? Do you have reasonable expectations? Should you? 

We know, intellectually, that everyone dies—and not always when they are old. That knowing doesn’t stop us from feelings of rage as well as sadness when someone we love is taken from us too soon. (And really, when isn’t too soon?)

We also “know” that a significant percentage of relationships end in breakup, but that doesn’t change how we feel if a partner leaves or betrays us. We know that bodies are fragile, prone to illness, accidents and aging, but when it is our own body that loses function, it’s only natural to grieve over abilities that we have lost.

Faith communities the world over offer differing perspectives for how one can deal with loss and the suffering that comes with it.

UUs are not uniform, not of one mind, in how to make sense of heartbreaking grief. What we do affirm is our human identity as story tellers and meaning makers.

We have the ability as human beings to create meaning out of our grief.

One can hear the storytellers and meaning makers; in the voices of the parents of children killed in school shootings who band together to promote gun control. In the stories of family members of a person who died young of a rare disease who raise money for research for a cure. Those who—rather than seeking revenge for the murder of a beloved family member—turn instead toward restorative justice, toward having their grief heard and responded to in a way that feels meaningful and healing. One can hear the storytellers and the meaning makers, who instead of being frozen in grief and outrage, are standing in line to face the looming monster and do the “next right thing,” anyway.

Of course, not all the stories we tell are constructive. Grief can easily spiral into self-blame: If only I had followed through with my plan to call him that night, then he wouldn’t have taken his own life. If only I had driven a different route, then the accident never would have happened. If only I had looked different or weren’t so loud or so quiet or so difficult or so accommodating, then they would have loved me the way I hoped they would.

And there are stories told that aren’t about self-blame, but of about finding an enemy to spend all one’s raging focus on building up.

The stories—the ways of making meaning that are full of regret, self-accusation, blaming—can leave us trapped in a spiral that piles self-loathing, and the (resulting) destruction from hating, on top of loss.

Grief is sharp and real and inevitable, but we can choose the stories that we tell about that grief, opting for stories of resilience and gratitude and possibility and the ongoing presence of love.

When we feel aggrieved because we haven’t gotten what we wanted, we can try to weave stories about learning and the creativity that comes from having to make a new way. While we grieve the vast suffering of injustice or the planetary crisis of climate change, we can tell stories of resistance, of the ways that we are trying to build a better world.

None of our stories, our attempts to make meaning out of a sense of loss, will prevent suffering or free us from the pain of grief. But some of our stories can keep us stuck, raging that water is wet or cocoa is hot, or that we always are the one who has to do the cleanup when the toddler throws a fit; or our stories can help us move forward, carrying our grief with us toward some greater purpose. Much of what happens to us is beyond our choosing, painfully out of our control. But we have the choice to make meaning out of loss, to tell stories that comfort and heal, and encourage growth as we embrace life.

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