Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Exile of Grief

This is my article published in the September/October 2004 Issue of “Alive Now” Magazine - Steve West

It has been nine months since my mother died, and I am still hurting. Walking through the journey of grief has been like taking steps through a vast, unexplored territory. Though I have counseled many people through loss, I am surprised by the fact that when it came to my own, I had no idea what to expect. Not really.

Grief has been like wandering in an unfamiliar world, living in an exile of sorts. The simplest things, like addressing an envelope to Dad and catching myself writing Mom’s name too, or listening to her name still lingering on his answering machine, remind me that home, as I once knew it, is gone. I am living a long way from that home, ripped away from my roots. Sometimes I am overcome by fear of the unknowns in this new place. At other times, it is more like confusion, as if I’m walking in the fog trying to figure out where I am. Still other times, grief feels more like waiting, as if in my desperate longing for this exile to be over I realize that there are a thousand more steps I must take. I have no map, and I have lost my beloved guide. Something about losing my mother makes me feel that I am left to fend for myself as I try to find my way back home.

One of the consolations of my grief came just a few months after Mom died. I experienced the grace of attending a session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. During one of the assigned reflection times, I pored over Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. My heart softened as I realized how difficult it must have been for those who had been corporately ripped away from their mothers and thrown into a whole new context. I can only imagine the grief and pain of walking in the strange and foreign land of Babylon.

Since that day, Jeremiah’s words of encouragement have resonated throughout my grief experience. In the midst of their suffering, he counseled the Hebrew people to make the best of life in the midst of pain – to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat from them, create families and multiply with them, and work in the city and prosper. These were not complicated instructions. They were simple actions of finding contentment in a foreign land.

In the exile of my grief I have been able to take comfort knowing that I can walk through this “valley of the shadow of death” one step at a time. I can find ways to embrace life in exile, trusting in the thrust of Jeremiah’s letter: When you are in exile, there is a way to live. We must choose life. This is a daily decision those who are grieving must make.

Like the exiles in Babylon, I am finding that making my way to joy again is a path of simple steps like building, planting, and eating. I write in my journal. I pray about my feelings and talk with a trusted friend. I pore over the psalms, which articulate the hidden cries of my heart. I spend time with my wife and kids, share with my church family, and email a friend. I lay a flower on Mom’s grave, and I remember her often in conversations with laughter and appreciation. I start new projects, believing that I honor her life by moving forward with mine. I negotiate with my brothers over what dish we each will bring for the holidays. These are not complicated things, no more than building, planting, and eating. Though they require great effort at first, it is the simple things that help me find a way to cope in this new and foreign land. I have to keep living. I have to keep breathing. I have to keep loving. I must find my joy again, because my joy is a choice.

I am not finished with exile yet. The journey has a way of dredging up monsters in the depths of my soul, and I have to stop from time to time and lay them in the hands of God. At times I feel barren and stranded, but I am learning to make the most of simple joys once again. I am alive, and I had a mother whose life I celebrate. I miss her terribly, but I honor her life by picking up the pieces and finding a place of contentment once again. For people in exile, contentment is a form of liberation.