Column: Theology in the Trenches: By Joni Woelfel

have been musing lately about the twists and turns in life, the roads not taken, the complexities of what could have been, of what is and the role of fate in our lives. I am wondering about the “if only’s,” the “thank God I didn’ts” and the poignant “I wish I had known.”   

In my wise, old, contemplative years, I am aware of how far-reaching consequences are of decisions people make — both the good, the bad, and the redemptive.

As my longtime friend and mentor, Adolfo Quezada once wrote to me, “Gratitude wells up in your heart not only when things are going well for you, but also, and especially, when you realize you have the gift of making the best of any circumstance.”  We deal with tensions in the body and soul from illness, suffering, anxiety, grief, relationship problems, workplace situations and global/political crisis. These universal tensions stretch us like thera-bands and call us to inner growth, however, wrenching that may be at times. While through faith and optimism we can be at peace within it and experience well-being, this stretching won’t end until we take our last breath.   

Our beloved 17-year-old son Mic took his last breath on August 7, 1999, through the tragedy of suicide.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death.  We remember him in tender, intimate, private moments, bonded as a family through a grief beyond words and the presence of his absence. Stretched by the profound and immeasurable sorrow, we eventually grew expansive enough within to contain it, now devoted caretakers of his sweet memory. 

People sometimes think that after 20 years a person should get over their grief; however, the truth is that there is no closure to this kind of pain and loss, it goes with you, integrated into your life. Thus it is, life goes on through finding meaning, remembering the good times, reaching out to others and communion with beauty, passion and the myriad ways that people find spiritual consolation.

One time, when it was extremely blustery and snowy out, my husband and I went for a drive around a local lake.  You could see the bare bones of the land, including the distant ice-house villages as if peering through white gauze. The raw, inner landscape of early grief is like this sometimes, feeling stark, isolating and frozen.  As dusk fell and snow swirled across the road before us, the air was saturated with horizontal flurries, bringing that mystical feeling of being suspended in a dream. The roaring wind seemed to carry a language all its own and we talked about heaven, what is real, what isn’t and the language of old grief, which we are now so familiar with and fluent in.

Old, mature grief, that clear guiding voice of experience contains many messages of hope.  Old grief is steady, patient, practical and full of insight.  Old grief understands the height and depth of the human journey, at one with the paradox of fragility and inner strength being present at the same time.

Old grief resides in scars, wounds, forgiveness and healing, knowing that letting go, acceptance and finding peace are not just empty words but precursors to a life that can include true joy. 

Old grief understands that laughter is sacred, possible, vital and precious.  Old grief embraces wholeness and the fullness of human emotion, shaming nothing, encouraging love and calling us past our mistakes and judgments to service and helping others in our own unique ways. 

Old grief has been tested many times and believes it when God says “You can make it.  You can endure and thrive.”  Old grief knows that when we allow ourselves to be stretched, God mends the brokenness and teaches us what it means to make the best of things, even through heartbreak, regret and setbacks.

This is never about pulling oneself up by your bootstraps, but adopting a prayerful, authentic, affirming way of being.  The voice of old grief, when seen through the eyes of the soul, reminds us that triumphs of the spirit are meant to be our legacy and that like the pieta, God holds us safely in the lap of grace.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Kjolhaug  provided a  guest the opportunity to write her column.

Joni Woelfel is author of the book Meditations for Survivors of Suicide.  She and her husband Jerry co-presented a grief workshop, Map of the Heart at the national TCF (Compassionate Friends) conference in 2007. (A companion reflection to this essay entitled Old Grief and Socks by Donna Ryding appears at the blog of Dennis Apple, www.thewritingapple.com.)

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