Holy Grief

My friend died last week, from suicide. It was a surprise and a shock. I have spent the last few days in a haze, moving slowly and deliberately. Getting things done as has been possible, but not well, not completely, and not lucidly. I have watched so much tv. I have listened to endless Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Fleetwood Mac, and Neko Case. My thoughts have rarely strayed from my friend, her death, our community, and my grief.

My community has seen a lot of death.

My community is made of trans women and men, of gender variant people, of brown and black people, poor people, and women. We are misfits. We are fighters. We struggle every day to keep moving through this world, and the world gives us few, if any, legs up. We don’t stop, though. We band together. We help each other. We keep fighting.

But sometimes it is too much. It is no shock my community has seen so much of death. As Audre Lorde wrote: “We were never meant to survive” (A Litany for Survival, Audre Lorde).

Just before my friend died, I was already in my own grief. Processing through much of the grief that has bubbled up of my own life, working hard to get it moved through me so that I can live in this life I have so fiercely fought to make for myself. Grief compounds grief and somehow we are supposed to keep moving.

In my practice as a chaplain, I know that our grief cares little about the traditions we function within. It doesn’t care who we pray to, what words we use to shape it. It doesn’t care about anything other than getting the attention that it wants. What it doesn’t want is explanations – we know there are no reasons. In Judaism, the traditional way to respond to news of a death is ברוך דין האמת (Baruch dayan haEmet). Blessed is the true judge. I have hated this forever. My rabbi, so wisely, responded to my news of my friends death with this: “We just don’t know.”

That is what grief wants. We don’t know. We don’t know why people commit suicide, we don’t know why we get handed the lots in life that we do. We don’t know why me, why now? We don’t know. We do know many other things, though: how to be with each other in pain, how to listen to each other, how to reach out with kind words, consistency, repetition. We know how to make soups and casseroles and tea. We know how to show up unexpected, to say “tell me about her” and “tell me what happened” and “I’ll just sit right here with you.”

It has been my hope that grief goes away. I’m not sure that it does, though. I’m certain, increasingly, that the work of helping grief flow is holy. Otherwise, it stagnates, becomes sour and sometimes poisonous. Once flowing, it can become sadness and anger, and can also move into memory and action. Grief leads to clear memories; grief leads to protesting in the streets; grief leads to writing, poems, songs, to art and to dancing; it leads to shouting, crying out, proclaiming from the rooftops.

Our grief is holy. Letting it move is holy. Sharing it is holy.

In Judaism, when honoring the death of a loved one, we say קדיש יתום (Kaddish Yatom) – the Mourner’s Kaddish. This blessing of sanctification doesn’t talk about the depths of grief: what it does is extol the Divine. Some say this is to remind the mourner of divinity and life. Others, that in death, God is a little diminished, and our prayers help to restore God’s kavod, or honor.

In this moment as I am grieving, I find myself needing Kaddish to remind me of life, of living, and of the holiness that surrounds me. I feel a hole in me, the shape of my friend. Not only in my heart, but in the universe. She matters, just as each of us does, and there will never be another like her. And I need to remind myself that there is beauty, goodness, honor, celebration, that the highest heights are still indeed possible, even if all I can feel in the moment are the lowest lows.

I need it for my life, here. I need it for the life my friend knew. I need it for the reality of living in a world in which none of us know exactly what will happen. We just don’t know. And for this, I turn to Elliot batTzedek’s reworking of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Here, there is a path. Through the pain, through the holy grief, towards tomorrow.

So often am I lost,

yet through the pall, yet through the tarnish, show me the way back,
through my betrayals, my dismay, my heart’s leak, my mind’s sway,
eyes’ broken glow, groan of the soul—which convey all that isn’t real,
for every soul to These Hands careen. And let us say, amen.

Say you will show me the way back, my Rock, my Alarm. Lead the way, Oh my Yah

And yet in shock and yet in shame and yet in awe and yet to roam and yet to stay
and yet right here and yet away and yet —“Halleluyah!” my heartbeat speaks, for You
live in all this murk and too in the clear and too in our wreckage.
You are the mirror of our souls, let us say: amen

Life may harm me, rob me, ream me raw, try me, even slay me
Over all You will prevail. And let us say: Amen

Say You shall loan me a tomorrow, Say You shall loan another day to all who are called Yisrael and all called Yishmael and all called We and They, and let us say, Amen

Image courtesy of deviantart.net

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4 thoughts on “Holy Grief

  1. Thanks for this open and honest post, Mackenzie. I think there’s a value in holding on to grief and carrying it with you. I’ve found that the more I’ve explored the pain the more I realize the values and characteristics I hope to carry on from a person or event. Being raised protestant it’s really interesting to read a Jewish perspective and approach to grief and death. Thanks for your vulnerability and openness to share that with the SoF community

  2. It is good to affirm what we do know in times of grief. The not-knowing-ness can be so disempowering. I was glad to read your story and hear these simple, tender, necessary words. To reflect a bit theologically, I wonder if perhaps there’s something about ordinary life, the now-ness of it, that can be a spiritual practice or act of sacredness, when done with intention. When I have been in deep grief, the simple acts (getting out of bed, making a meal, taking a bath, calling a friend) sometimes felt like defiance, resistance…and on other days, they rang of surrender…all I can do is this, but I CAN do this… Thank you for sharing your story. Blessings to you.

  3. Mackenzie, thank you for this powerful experience of grief. I am sorry for your loss, and one thing I do know, for certain, is you will carry your friend onward in life, so in a way her life will continue too.
    Grieving can feel like wading through mud- there is so much heaviness. I love how you pointed out that when grief stagnates it can become sour or poisonous. By engaging with this pain you are, as Liz so eloquently pointed out, committing an act of resistance or defiance. I hope you are surrounded by the balms of comfort that we earthlings can offer you- presence, acknowledgement, love and yes, a hope for tomorrow.

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