Wednesday, November 12, 2008


"Grief is not a mental illness. It just feels like one." Blanche M, Texas

Two Sundays ago was the fourth anniversary of my younger brother's death. He actually died on Election Day, 2004, so that week this year was a double whammy.

Sunday 02NOV08 was also All Souls Day, when in my tradition we remember 'the faithful departed', and I was reminded of SGT Saffar Arjmandi, an ROTC Cadet who was going "Green-to-Gold" at the university where I was teaching at the beginning of this millennium. He was a RANGER and a RAKKASAN, and I had been saying Mass for a number of RAKKASANs who were RANGERs. They were getting ready to redeploy (return home to the States), so friends I'd made since coming Down Range were leaving.

Aunt Pat died on Wednesday of that week, and her funeral was the following Monday, her birthday. I was, of course, unable to visit her while she was sick, and I was over here during her funeral.

Two days after Aunt Pat's death I found out about the particularly brutal murder of seven-month-old Ryan, and had the privilege of spending time with his father, Chris.

Elaine W, who's been sober since God was young, has found out that the surgeon did not remove all of her breast cancer, despite the radical nature of the surgery performed. She needs radiation therapy now. I'm Down Range, and haven't mastered the art of bilocation yet. During and after her surgery earlier this year, I visited her in the hospital or the surgery rehab center almost every day for more than a month.

My friend Dorothea, who's living with post-polio syndrome complicated with cancer complicated with a multiply-fractured leg from a fall a couple of months ago has experienced a dramatic loss of energy and muscular control, and has been confined to bed for some time now. There's no way for me to swoop in and say and do outrageous things to get her to laugh.

Lately SFC McG is off on a mission without me, so he's not around. We'd pretty much been joined at the hip since his arrival at Summer Camp - South four months ago, so I am very aware of his absence.

It's been a rough few weeks.

Each new grief brings up every old grief.

Grief is often misunderstood, and for that reason, feared.

People, in my experience, tend to believe that grief has, or at least ought to have, a time limit. There also seems to be an expectation that only certain griefs are 'worthy'.

My friend Blanche was right: Grief feels like a mental illness.

People fear it, I suppose, because in the midst of separation from the one who was loved and lost, grief isolates us from the ones who are still with us. Because so many people seem not to understand it, they judge their own and others' grief harshly. We in the melting pot that is the United States seem to be schooled to avoid it, deny it, or at the very least, NEVER let someone else know that it's happening.

This is especially true over here Down Range. "Suck it up and drive on" is the watchword. Mission first, after all -- and for good reason! But grief 'unobserved' accumulates, and we can lose the ability to accomplish even the simple mission of interacting in healthy ways with those around us. Case in point: Deployment Stress Syndrome.

Fortunately, I've hung out with people who go to AA and Al-Anon and NA and other 12-Step Recovery program meetings for so long, they've taught me that grief is all about powerlessness.

12-Step programs give people the tools to deal with powerlessness so that we needn't add more unmanageability into situations that already have more than enough, thank you very much. My friends who go to meetings have taught me that if I can name the powerlessness -- grief -- for what it is, I can use the eleven other steps of their program to move through the grief in a healthy and holy way.

Interestingly, denying grief, eschewing it, pretending it's not there, or otherwise refusing to experience it is decidedly unscriptural (for those for whom that's important)! Here are just two small, but significant, f'rinstances:

I'm reminded of Handel's "Messiah" and its treatment of a passage from the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:3-5; King James Version)

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
(John 11:33-36; New Revised Standard Version)

Our tears are holy, and I believe we're in really good company when we allow ourselves to have courage enough to face just how awful the situation really is. If Jesus wept at the tomb of his buddy Lazarus, what better company could there be?

More on this at a later date....

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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