On May 17, in partnership with the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute (PSI), Trinity will offer a liturgy designed for people in the midst of grief. The Rev. Kristin Miles and Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason, a clinical pastoral psychotherapist at PSI, spoke about grief and ritual.
Kristin Miles: When you’re grieving, ritual is a very powerful source of healing and support and comfort. Often we need ritual to hold us and to go beyond words. Words can be limited. For instance, a colleague of mine lost her baby. There were no prayers she could say, but she could make the sign of the cross. That for her was the only expression she could make of opening herself, of this possibility of God being with her.
Part of the church’s mission is be a place where people can lay down their burdens and find rest. Ritual can acknowledge the pain and also hold open the possibility of additional meaning. Sometimes it feels like the whole person comes down to this loss, and ritual can hold open the possibility of something broader than just the loss of the relationship. Yet we’re not rushing. It can’t be said. It can just be experienced.
Kelly Murphy Mason: Ritual is so containing and so organizing for people. That’s something our faith communities provide uniquely well. There’s something so primal in us that responds to deep grief, and because of that some will have a tendency to go wordless, but many will have a tendency to go off and lick their wounds, so as not to be seen or heard, not to be a disturbance to the peace—to suffer in silence but also suffer in solitude. That’s exactly what we need to be addressing.
Miles: I love the author Rachel Naomi Remen. She talks about how one of her clients came to her and said, I don’t understand why children, whenever they’re hurt, go to an adult and have [the adult] kiss their boo-boo. That doesn’t take away the pain. Rachel said to her client, well no, it doesn’t take away the pain, it takes away the loneliness. What ritual does is help bear the loneliness of the pain.
Mason: There’s this wonderful Buddhist parable I sometimes tell my students: There’s a mother who has lost a child, and she goes to the Buddha and says, I want you to take away my suffering. He says, I will take away your suffering. Bring me back a cup of rice from a household that has known no suffering. So she goes throughout the village and throughout the district looking for a household that has known no suffering, and she hears tales of their suffering. When she returns to the Buddha, she has no cup of rice, but she says her suffering was relieved. I imagine when she’s going from house to house, maybe she’s crying with [the people there]. There’s a kind of communion that happens.
Miles: You can say that grief isn’t the problem. The loss is the problem, and grief is the work we do with the loss. It feels like this monolithic, huge thing, but actually we can work with it.
Mason: We have this delusion that we can regulate grief. Grief is so much bigger than our attempts to regulate it. All these timetables people get—what’s supposed to happen at two weeks, six months—in some ways they’re cruel. They’re totally unrealistic. When people are in profound grief, there’s this awestruck recognition that life is just bigger than us. Carl Jung famously said, we are not captains of our own ship. We’re along for the ride, but we’re not piloting, and I think when people are grieving they understand that more than at almost any other time in their life.
It’s like you caught the flu. You have grief. I don’t know when you’ll be feeling better. It has a course that it runs, it’s an organic phenomenon, but you don’t know when you will no longer be stricken.
The first thing people want to know is how many sessions they will need before they’re out of [counseling]. When I’m working with someone who’s lost a significant person, a year is nothing. That’s just the first Christmas and the first birthday and the first Fourth of July. That’s just getting acquainted with life thereafter. In a lot of [situations] we work with people in therapeutic settings, we’re asking them to slow down a little bit and honor what’s happening rather than avoid it.
Miles: I think one of the great gifts that you’re offering is helping people to let go of those timetables and also helping them to cope when people are imposing those timetables upon them. You know, “They keep telling me to get over it.” It’s a process.
Mason: One of my favorite cautionary tales is the Book of Job. When Job’s friends come [to him] and they keep their mouths shut, they’re such good friends. As soon as they start talking and theorizing and fixing and hypothesizing and speculating, they’re horrible friends. It’s okay to come and sit with your friend and have nothing to offer other than your heartbeat along with her heartbeat. That’s a human communion.
Rest for Our Souls: A Service for those in Grief and Loss will be offered quarterly. For more information click here or contact the Rev. Kristin Miles at firstname.lastname@example.org.