The pesky problem of un-grieved grief

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Those sudden, deep rumblings in our souls? Maybe we should pay attention.

A recent spate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has residents uneasy and scientists scratching their heads. Something is going on deep within the earth.

Theories abound:

  • “It’s those freaking frackers!”
  • “It’s payback for the wrongs done to the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Nations.”

Meanwhile, 450 miles southeast, I’m trying to make sense of some seismic tremors in my own heart. For awhile now, in the most unexpected places and at the most awkward times, I’ve been rocked by sudden, powerful shudders of raw emotion.

Often I get the sense that if I gave in, I wouldn’t just get misty-eyed, I would sob…great racking sobs like Rambo at the end of First Blood.

What is up? Is it aging and dying parents? The empty nest? Major career change? Too many schmaltzy Facebook videos of veterans and wheelchair-bound puppies? Maybe it’s normal regrets or occasional epiphanies like I will NEVER win the Masters! God knows.

Here’s the thing. I wasn’t a crier growing up. In my neighborhood “boys don’t cry” was the unspoken rule…until some kid shed a tear. Then the rule was more than spoken. It was yelled — and served up with a punch.

When I was 15 my Mom came home one day with the out-of-the-blue news that my Dad had cancer in more places than he didn’t have it. I confess I bawled that day, like a scared, starving infant. But as I watched my Dad shrivel up and fade away over the next six months, I subconsciously boarded up the staircase that led down into my heart. And I made the choice to live upstairs only, in my head. By the day of his death, I was Mr. Spock. At his funeral, I was a sphinx.

Over the ensuing months and years, internally and imperceptibly I became angrier and angrier. It wasn’t until a decade later that it dawned on me: not grieving wasn’t manly; it was unhealthy.

In my whole life, I only saw my Dad tear up once — late one afternoon in Arlington National Cemetery. The sight of all those perfectly aligned white crosses pierced his World War II veteran’s heart like a sniper’s bullet. I watched him teeter briefly on the edge of coming undone, when suddenly, embarrassment counterattacked, chasing all those sad feelings back into the shadows of his heart.

So I only saw his lip quiver that one time. But I saw him get angry a lot. I’m no psychiatrist, but if you ask me, rage is just sadness that got shoved aside, went off and pumped iron for a few months, and then came back with a vengeance. When Michael Douglas tries to dump Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and she snarls, “I’m not going to be IGNORED!”…that’s grief — more than anger — doing the talking.

I have long been a fan of the writer Frederick Buechner. Some people think great thoughts, and some people write beautiful words. Mr. Buechner does both at once. Here’s what he says about tears:

“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it….a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

“They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”

The next time I start to feel all those powerful emotions shifting like tectonic plates at the core of my being, I hope I pay attention…and fight off the urge to fight them off.

It feels so counter-intuitive…standing still and giving in to an avalanche of emotion. But it’s not the grief that will hurt us in the end…it’s the un-grieved grief.

How ironic that we should feel so threatened by something that has so much healing power.

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