A Good Grief Observed

A few Sundays ago, the topic of our Crestwood University adult education class was what to say when you are faced with death. When you walk into the funeral home or have a conversation with someone recently widowed, what do you say? Or what should you NOT say? Too many well-intentioned people have said hurtful, theologically idiotic things like, “Well, they’re better off” or “I guess God needed another angel in Heaven.” The goal of the class was to help people think about what they’re saying before they say it (I’m considering a follow-up class on Facebook posts).

I was only the emcee; the leader of the class was Loren, a former seminary professor and member of our congregation. Loren has an illustrious history as pastor, teacher, and author, including writing Responses to Suffering: Yours and Mine. This man has taught grief, written about grief, and helped countless families work through grief.

I reluctantly add to his resume that he has also experienced grief. About a year ago, his bride of 64 years, Catherine, died of pancreatic cancer. The professor became the student as he dealt with his own grief first-hand. Catherine was a queen of a lady, a wonderful, larger-than-life presence who touched thousands of lives and left an indelible mark on this world. During her illness, she received over 1000 cards, many with personal notes and remembrances. She and Loren were a walking love affair, a consummate team, and for a year now, Loren has been figuring out how to live life as an amputee, half of his vitality severed from him.

On Sunday, Loren did one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed: he invited a class of 16 people to join him on his journey as he recounted what the experience has been like for him. His honesty was comforting and his humor provided a needed respite in the midst of a painful story. This academician who’s written books on this subject talked about being “ambushed” by emotion, of walking around “in a fog” as the grief enveloped his existence.

I learned a lot about the logistics of grief (if there’s anything logistic about it), but I learned even more how to survive grief simply by watching and listening to Loren. He opened himself up to us, courageously sharing his personal testimony while balancing it with scholarly wisdom (ever the professor, he had handouts for all of us!). He talked about what he missed most, what was and wasn’t helpful to him, and how his faith played an important part of his journey.

Loren has always been a joy and a blessing to so many people, and that hasn’t changed since Catherine’s death. But he has changed in other ways, significant ways, and he knows he will never be the same. Thanks to his willingness to share, the class now knows it, too, and we are all better and more compassionate people for it. Writer Anne Lamott said, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

Thank you, Loren, for modeling for the class and for me what it means to love, to lose, and to keep on living. My heart aches to see you limping, but my heart soars to see you still dancing.


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