Over a decade ago, I briefly shared an office with a coworker who was retired from the United States Air Force. He was very much in the midst of figuring out what “Act 2” of his life would look like. I was sort of in the same boat, having recently “retired” myself from 15 years of congregational youth ministry. We enjoyed sharing space and worked well together.
Some of you who’ve heard me speak might know this story – but one morning, he came in, silent, moving with less energy, and his usual cheery “Good morning!” replaced with a terse, “Hey,” as he sat down at his desk.
“You good?” I asked, unable to just let the obvious change in demeanor go.
“Um, ok. You sure?” I pressed.
“My dog died.”
“Oh,” I responded, “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I know that pain and it sucks.”
He grunted a response and I let it go. Until about ten minutes later, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a grown man sobbing.
“Hey,” I said, turning towards him, “It’s okay. Just cry.”
He whirled around, looked me square in the eyes and barked, “No. It’s not. You tell me, Julie – you tell me how I can stand over the bodies of six dead airmen and not shed a tear, keep it together, and my damn dog dies and I lose it!”
I did not say a word. I simply held his gaze until he’d regained some composure and then, quietly, told him again how sorry I was, and then listened while he told me about his dog.
He never mentioned the six dead airmen again. And I’m no grief expert, but I know enough about how it works to be pretty confident that while, sure, his dog’s death was sad, the grief it caused to explode in him had a lot more to do with those lost men than it did the dog.
We are terrible at grief in the United States. I mean, terrible. And our inability to name the things we’ve lost and truly mourn that loss is costing us everything – our very humanity, in fact.
Hundreds of school children have now fallen at the hands of killers with assault rifles, thousands of lives and entire communities changed as a result.
Covid-19 has ripped at the already fraying seams of our life together – loved ones have died, significant occasions have been missed, vicious arguments explode over the efficacy of vaccines, our workplaces and work habits are forever changed.
Inflation is blowing up household budgets left and right, and the level of stress this causes the average family gets played out in all sorts of unhealthy ways.
Political toxicity, false information, and zero room for civil discourse pervade every aspect of our lives and our “communication” has been reduced to snarky memes, cable news hottakes and whatever hashtag makes clear our allegiances.
And against the backdrop of all of it are the normal losses of this life–disease and divorce and layoffs and shattered dreams.
We are, y’all, awash in grief. Nothing is as it once was, and we have chosen to drown our complicated sorrows in fear and anxiety and constant attack, as opposed to naming the common enemies, and doing the very, very hard work of sacrifice, of relationship, on behalf of each other and our children.
Our grief, unnamed and undealt with, is exploding. We cannot contain it, and it frightens us in ways we cannot begin to explain.
If you have not seen Maverick, the 35-years later follow-up to Top Gun, I highly recommend it (and if you somehow never saw the first one it is widely available on various streaming services right now, so catch up!).
In making plans to see it, I expected to be entertained, and was curious about what they’d do with the story.
I did not expect to be blown away by a box office smash that explored the effects of trauma, how grief changes us in profound ways, and how sometimes, healing happens when we don’t even realize we still need it. The loss of “Goose” in the first movie drove the entire storyline of the second movie.
And isn’t that as it should be? Shouldn’t such a tremendous, unexpected, tragic loss drive, in ways good, bad and ugly, how we live out what we’ve got left?
There is a monotony to grief – it’s a long, arduous, path. Sometimes there are moments of relief – quick glimpses of grace that serve as enough hope available to carry us forward. But often it is just one uphill slog after another, even circling back on itself in unexpected moments that exhaust us and leave us wondering if we’ll ever see the light again.
But y’all. I promise you. There is no way through it but, well…through it. It has to be named. Claimed, sat with, absorbed at face value. We have to let it overwhelm us long enough to want real healing – otherwise we simply toss it off to someone else, and, in doing so, multiply its harm.
I once heard a nonprofit leader say, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Read that again.
Hurt people hurt people.
We are all hurting. Constantly and more deeply than we’ve got a healthy grasp on. Because damn this world is just so vicious right now. In so many ways.
But we have to stop hurting each other – with our spoken words, with our social media presence, with how we engage in relationships, with how we behave (both actively and passively).
We have to stop hurting each other.
Name what you’ve lost today.
Sit with it.
Lay on the kitchen floor and sob if you have to.
Text or call a friend or a family member and share it.
Find a good therapist if you need to (hint: we all do).
Let the reality of the loss overwhelm you long enough to make a desire, a space, for healing.
There is no more avoiding what we’ve lost if we’ve any hope for a better way.