A Grief Observed (Without God)

“Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life. What I had not prepared myself for was death. Grief without faith. Which is to say, death without hope.”

Those were the first words to “Grief Without God,” a recent New York Times Sunday Review piece. The rest of the article has no less candor. In it, Amber Scorah, the author, recounts the period of bereavement she went through after rejecting the faith she grew up with. For her, the only thing thing that ever alleviated the loss of her religion was the birth of her first child. She would then lose her son at the age of four months.  

Scorah’s point is to articulate how losing her faith made the heartbreak of losing her child all the more acute. There is the grief of losing a child, and then there is the grief that the grief will never find anything to solace it: “I will grieve my son forever. Or rather, not forever—until I die. This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.” That’s the only hope she’s able to name.

Similarly, this year’s winner of Modern Love’s college essay contest focused on the absence of a balm for grief. In it, a student named Kyleigh Leddy walks the reader through what it’s like to mourn the disappearance of someone you love, in this case, her sister. What makes the piece so heartrending is the lack of closure and everything she does to try and find it. Leddy describes calling her sister’s phone just to hear the voicemail and scrolling through the still active Facebook profile. She continues, 

Recently I read about the development of chatbots that can imitate human speech patterns. The technology is being considered as a way to facilitate bereavement, allowing us to communicate with loved ones through text messages. Using personal data and old messages, the bots can respond like your father, grandmother or sister. They can use your loved ones’ favorite phrases and dialectic habits. They can say, “I miss you, too.”

Ultimately, she rejects this type of solution altogether. Like Scorah’s piece, the void is considered too big a gulf to seal. 

As moving as these essays are—in part for the nature of the loss, in part for the honesty in the author’s self-revelation—I couldn’t help but wonder what’s supposed to sutures these types of wounds. Where do we think we can go to unload this type of pain? 

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With these questions in mind, I was reminded of a Japanese film that had similar questions about what facilitates closure in grief, the Academy Award winner “The Departures” (2009).

The narrative follows a Cellist who inadvertently becomes a professional in the Japanese tradition of ritual encoffinment. The tradition is called nōkan, and the grace of the film is its depiction of the ceremony, the way it makes a liturgy out of preparing the human body for burial. All the transformations in the bereaved take place when they see the body of the one they mourn treated as if it were sacred. And it is. Not only are you, as a viewer, captivated by the precision and beauty of the rite, but you’re disarmed into a posture toward human life and death that is fundamentally reverent. And it’s breathtaking. 

The tone of the film is borderline sacramental. On screen, ritual provides a catalyst and catharsis for emotion. By letting the loss be the foreground of a communal event, something is effected in the bereaved that lets them say goodbye. 

I had a privileged experience in ministry with a similar dynamic. It happened while I was volunteering as a chaplain in a hospital. One day, as I was in the elevator, a man accompanied by his wife and two kids sees me in clerics. He asks if I would go with him to see his father. “Of course,” I reply. As we step out unto the floor, he tells me, “my dad just died. Can you just… come say a few prayers with us? The rest of my family is there, too.” 

Entering the room, I see a man’s body, untouched, in the hospital bed while the rest of the family is gathered in a semi-circle. As soon as he sees his father, the man who soberly pulled me aside audibly winces and starts to cry. I ask the family to hold hands as we pray a Hail Mary, then an Our Father, and some words asking the Lord to grant this man’s soul eternal rest, that perpetual light shine upon him. 

Standing in the presence of his father’s body, this man thanks me with an unmistakable tone of relief. There’s visible peace on his face. I remember that moment as one of the most palpable effects of prayer I’ve ever seen. All this man did, in a moment of prayer, was surrender. And that, too, was breathtaking.

My own prayer is that Scorah and Leddy find the peace that their hearts long for, even if they’ve stopped looking. Searching for hope becomes sacred the moment it’s found. Or in the words of Mary Oliver, “There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.”

Or in the words of Christ, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:3). 

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Image courtesy FlickrCC user Dave_S.

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