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Shrinking from grief

Am I wrong to suspect that grief, the genuine and loud experience and expression of total strickenness and sorrow, is almost totally unacceptable today, both in and outside the church?

And correspondingly, whether or not we reject “all violence” on Christian principles, I wonder if the violence irrupting from grief, from anguish is for us the most unspeakable and reproachable violence. Violence for the sake of security, justice, or retribution, or that eminently understandable violence, the violence of order and reasonable process, perhaps these we might understand but the violence that springs from: ” By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep . . . How blessed will be the the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!” — this violence, the irrational violence of mothers, daughters, of sons, fathers, and friends, we shrink back from in disgust, in visceral fear. And in this shrinking, do we not turn our back on any possibility of speaking truth? I think so.


  1. Wenatchee The Hatchet wrote:

    Well, this might explain why nobody talks about Barefoot Gen at parties besides me (that I know of).

    I’ve got more organized and maybe “thoughtful” thoughts but I’m possibly up too late for those. The Year of Magical Thinking sold a bit but even though Didion wrote the book in the midst of dealing with the death of her husband and daughter it still has Didion’s trademark cold, emotional withdrawal. It was even more emotionally submerged than usual for her and made reading the book weirdly oppressive.

    For years I found the psalms hard to relate to and stomach because the expressions of grief seemed so outsized and crazy. Now that I’ve been unemployed for two years, have no money, and need eye surgery the laments don’t seem quite so outsized or implausible!

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  2. Matt Frost wrote:

    Grief has a sort of apocalytic reality — the world is ripped open and the truth is revealed. We would rather pave another layer over the abyss. Even failure is a sin im our societies, because it touches the abyss. The fact that we are closer than we like to it all the time is intolerable — without faith. Niebuhr’s analysis of anxiety, pride and sensuality has its flaws, but the point is at least touched there.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  3. I think you’re on to something here, and with an eye to your second paragraph, I wonder if part of it is our preoccupation (for lack of a better word) with order.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  4. Diana Hereld wrote:

    I do not believe you are wrong. Not in the least. It is unacceptable, and bordering on unspeakable. It reveals personal weakness, end of story. And it’s a tragedy indeed. It’s so very much easier to pile on the layers, be it academic, professional, or social.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  5. dan wrote:

    A few remarks in response:

    (1) Similar to WTH, I’ve never been able to connect with the Psalms. At all. Even gave up halfway through Brueggemann’s famous book on the Psalms… and I usually love Brueggemann’s stuff. I’ve only felt connected with a few lament psalms, including the one quoted in this post. Such a sorrowful song. Not only sorrowful because of the experience of exile it recounts, but sorrowful because those in exile long for the dashing of babies against rocks… the response to this is not to condemn but to weep with. At least that’s my response.

    (2) I’m skeptical about MF’s remark… seems that there is still some ideological overcoding going on there and, it seems to me, that the core of any traumatic experience of suffering is that that experience when it is experienced cannot be coded or slotted into any meaningful narrative in any way. I’ve touched on that elsewhere:

    (3) Going to the post itself, I would question the second paragraph. It seems to me that part of the power of the violence of order is that it taps into the violence of retribution that is described in Ps 139. Think of the proliferation of revenge fantasy films in Hollywood, where otherwise good and kind people are drawn into acting murderously to avenge the deaths of their loved ones or some such thing. Isn’t that the narrative of our wars? We are in Afghanistan because they killed people in NYC, ditto for Iraq, wherever else. Blessed, indeed, are we for dashing their babes against the rocks for we are the eternal victims and the violence of order is thus presented as the righteous and cathartic outlet for our grief! (Or so the story goes.)

    That said, damn good post. I’m very interested in your turn to this subject matter and your presentation of it this way. I want to know more. Alas, over the last several years, I have become far more acquainted with grief than I would ever have wanted to be. Mostly, in response, I find I am ever only able to pray two lines:

    Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Wenatchee The Hatchet wrote:

    What helped me, Dan, was reading John Donne. I’ve enjoyed both his poetry and his sermons and I ended up discovering that when one of the best poets in the English language happened to know some Hebrew it helped me get some ideas of how a poet could approach another poet’s work. I’m not saying it’ll work for you but it has helped me come to more of an apprciation of the psalms than I had years ago.

    And at the risk of pointing out another obvious avenue, singing choral settings of psalms in college choir was another inroad that worked well for me.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink
  7. Wenatchee The Hatchet wrote:

    Dan put it more clearly than I could. I’d been thinking about pointing out that the anger mingled with grief is a cliche in the motivation of genre protagonists, whether we’re talking about Mad Max, Batman, Spiderman, or others. The three I mentioned seem like more interesting variations on the trope. Mad Max (at least in the first film) realizes too late that he has tragically become the kind of monster he’s trying to stop.

    Batman and Spiderman probably need no explanation but the better stories don’t merely get mired down in violence for security, justice or order, but get into the violence of loss and the helplessness that comes with that. I’ve been writing a bit about Batman: the animated series for some fun and while I admit I’m a sucker for the show what stands out to me is that the show constantly goes back to the theme of loss and grief and how, in anger, many people make terrible and irreversible decisions in light of that. So, yeah, there is a rage in grief that is unacceptable to many of us but maybe, per Dan’s remarks, is part of what we realize to be scary about that mixture of grief and rage is that in the midst of that we can be so readily tempted to do things or say things that cannot possibly be undone?

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  8. dan wrote:

    Part of my problem is that I just have a helluva a time connecting with any poetry (including Donne), no matter how hard I (used to) try. Apart from a few song writers, the only official poet who has drawn me into his writings (and, really blown my mind actually) is Rilke. Halden, have you read the Duino Elegies? I think it would be your kind of thing. I’m not expert on best translations, but the one done by Stephen Mitchell was incredible (and has the German text on the facing page).

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink
  9. 8:22 am.

    “Isn’t it a pity
    You don’t know what i’m talking about yet
    But i will tell you soon
    It’s a pity

    Isn’t it a pity
    Isn’t it a shame
    Yes, how we break each other’s hearts
    And cause each other pain”

    To DanO, and y’all. first, open up another window and put this on: It’s Nina Simone’s version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity.” Ok, now it’s been a bit of a tough morning. Bad news last night about 2 friends, one (Mike) with a heart attack, another (Connie) collapsing with unbearable abdominal pain, docs still don’t know what’s up, appendicitis? pregnancy gone bad? Musician friends came over too, we played and drank too much, up past 2 in am! which is hard on working class folks on a ‘work night’; and we prayed for our friends, sort of, via the lamenting fiddle by two great musicians, Steve and Joanne. That and my version of Hank’s ‘Last Long Ride” that I posted before on your FB Halden:

    “I stood beside a deep cold grave
    One dark and rainy day.
    And watched so helpless as they laid.
    My own dear darling away.

    I can’t go on, no use to try, I just can’t bear to say goodbye.”

    Hank Williams is the Rilke of Alabama. What some call, ‘black, white, folks.‘ Hank and Nina have gotten me through some hard times, and there’s more hard times a-coming I’m afraid. Hank and Jim Beam and friends in pain will get the tears flowing.

    “Isn’t it a pity…

    How we take each other’s love
    Without thinking anymore
    Forgetting to give back
    Forgetting to remember
    Just forgetting and no thank you
    Isn’t it a pity

    Some things take so long
    But how do i explain
    Why not too many people can see
    That we are all just the same
    We’re all guilty.”

    So we are figuring out who is going to take care of our friend Mike’s dogs while he is in the hospital. And there is wood to chop and stack because they only have wood heat in their old trailer and his 24 yr. old son Daryl has ‘special needs’ and a drinking problem to boot and can’t be trusted with an axe let alone a fire. Assuming Mike lives I don’t know how he is going to get by on his own. Mike is Native American, Ojibwa, and he does get some small amt. of an annuity from his tribe back east so maybe that can help him till he gets back on his feet (little enough to expect I guess for giving up Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Ohio and Ontario!). I gotta tell ya, this is all happening at a bad time for me, my plate is really full right now, still…..

    “Isn’t it a pity…

    We take each other’s love
    Just take it for granted
    Without thinking anymore
    We give each other pain
    And we shut every door

    We take each other’s minds
    And we’re capable of take each other’s souls
    We do it every day
    Just to reach some financial goal
    Lord, isn’t it a pity, my God
    Isn’t it a pity, my God
    And so unnecessary.”

    Neither Connie or Mike have insurance, they were both cut from Wash. St. supported insurance last year, so I don’t know what this means in terms of their treatment and care or future survival. Bake sales and donations jars at stores just don’t cover hospital bills these days. We’re already talking about having a benefit concert, but even a big turnout will probably only raise enough money to pay for about 15 minutes of hospital time. Charity? that can be such an ugly word sometimes, in this culture anyway. ‘Caritas?’ just a different shade of lipstick on the pig my friends. (I got to be honest here, my mouth is dry, my eyes are red and hurting, my head is pounding, no CAT scan needed, i got myself a hangover, now how does that help anybody? What a pathetic, self-pitying bastard I am sometimes, ok, sorry, back to reality).

    “Isn’t it a pity.

    We take each other’s minds
    And we’re capable of take each other’s souls
    We do it every day
    Just to reach some financial goal
    Lord, isn’t it a pity, my God
    Isn’t it a pity, my God
    And so unnecessary

    Just a little time, a little care
    A little note written in the air
    Just the little thank you
    We just forget to give back
    Cause we’re moving too fast
    Moving too fast
    Forgetting to give back.”

    12;15 pm. Rick (Connies ‘boyfriend;’ that is, he’s the guy who screws her and spends her money, cause he don’t work, while Connie works a job and a half–we all love her and hate Rick the fu#%king deadbeat, don’t get me started) Anyway Rick just called and asked if I could stop by their apt. and get his cigarettes and Connie’s purse and bring them to the hospital, what a prick!). Oh, and then he mentioned that they can’t seem to get Connie’s pain under control (I know he’s thinking a lot about what kind of meds they are going to send her home with and how many he can pilfer, the fu%&king junkie, and I hope he read this! if I ever backslide on my woosie pacifism Im gunna kick his ass first!). Anyway, there’s no fever so they have ruled out appendicitis, I guess that’s good news but who knows? This ‘beautiful creation’ has a million ways of killing us, most of them painfull. So they’re just waiting for the results of a CAT scan etc.. From experience I can tell you that suffering without knowing why is about the worst kind of suffering there is. That’s where the poets come in I think, they put a ‘why’ to suffering that doctors can’t.

    “Isn’t it a pity.
    How we break each other’s hearts
    And cause each other pain
    How we take each other’s love
    The most precious thing
    Without thinking anymore

    Isn’t it a pity
    If you want to feel sorry
    Isn’t it a pity
    Isn’t it a pity
    The beauty sets the beauty that surrounds us
    Because of all our tears
    Our eyes can’t hope to see

    Maybe one day at least i’ll see me
    And just concentrate on givin’, givin’, givin’, givin’
    And till that day
    Mankind don’t stand a chance
    Don’t know nothin’ about romance
    Everything is plastic
    Isn’t it a pity
    My God.”

    2;55 pm off to the hospitals, sorry for the long rant H., friends in need are a pain in the ass, but I got wood to chop and a migraine to bear (I pray it’s not a tumor). So, is this enough ‘strickeness and sorrow’ for ya? cry me a river…Obliged.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Bobby Grow wrote:

    It’s the “Bronze People.”

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  11. roger flyer wrote:

    Imburgia. damn.

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Thank you.


    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  13. Well y’all didn’t ask for it but here’s a quick update on Mike and Connie. First, go over to Dianna’s blog (see her comments above) and put on her great new song So, Mike is ok, for now, they opened up his clogged vessels with drugs alone, but he has some worrying other blockages, and his veins are too brittle for stints or angioplasty, and his heart is just in bad shape causing concern for the future. He has a month’s worth of meds, but no insurance or money for more after that (about 600$ month!!!) and when emergent care is over you are on your own. Some folks installed an electric heater in his trailer so he won’t have to worry about fetching wood and starting fires fro awhile–just paying the bigger electric bill. It sucks being poor in the richest country in the history of the world (god how I hate it here sometimes). Connie it turns out has serious intestinal issues, some polyps and bleeding, and she was so impacted it was causing her excruciating pain, which has now largely subsided (we won’t go into details about all the necessary treatments). They are checking the polyps for cancer but docs are hopeful that the polyps are benign. Now I know a lot of folks are at the AAR conference in S.F. so they won’t get this update. I can’t help wondering if all these big-time theological conferences were held in hospital chapels instead of posh hotels with karaoke bars it would offer a better real-life practicum for experiencing the kind of ‘strickeness and grief,’ the suppression of which Halden has so wisely brought to our attention? I reckon witnessing an intestinal de-impaction aught to focus one’s attention on the Platonic distinctions between ‘that reality which is perceptible, but not intelligible, and that which is intelligible, but imperceptible,‘ as least as much as say a class called “Augustine and Augustinianisms Group and Platonism and Neoplatonism Group: From Middle Platonism to Neoplatonism”(LOL). I have spent a lot of time going to mass in hospital chapels (and prison chapels too for that matter), and I have often found a level of intimate sharing of anguish, hopelessness and grief that our culture has otherwise figured out how to channel either out of sight, or into prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters, etc., or else cleverly marketed, safely buffered, and then consumed through the phatasmagoria of the movie screen or video game. Now how much good sitting around with bottles of Jack Daniels playing and singing songs by Iris Dement, Hank, and Townes van Zant, and getting all weepy and slobbery sose that just for few hours your knees and back don’t hurt and laughing that whiskey laugh where you don’t care what you look like with happy/sorrowful tears and snot coming ouchyer nose, cause some one told what seemed a funny joke at the time like: “What’s the difference between the earlier and the later Wittgenstein?…its a matter of sillygisms!!!! No shit, next time your drunk you’ll see how g-d damn funny that is! Anyhoo, remember Connie’s deadbeat ‘boyfriend,’ Rick? Well, I owe him a bit of an apology. Turns out he stepped up more than any of us figured he would; he cleaned the apt. all up, emptied out the cat litter boxes, hauled away all the beer bottles and garbage, got a bunch of food from the food banks, sold one of his guitars to pay a month ahead on the rent, he’s giving white, frigging, trash a good name! We brought Connie home from the hospital and when we walked in and saw how things looked she actually started crying (and she gave me a look that said ‘see, he’s not just the worthless leech motherfu%#er I said he was’–which don’t mean I don’t love him in Jesus btw). Of course, she was still high on vicodin, and I’m worried that Rick’s channeling of Martha Stewart may mean he’s back on meth. Still, today was a good day…except something keeps gnawing at me like a chigger in my underwear, just what is the difference betwixt ‘middle platonism‘ and ‘neoplatonism?‘ There’s a song there somewhere! Well, obliged and blessings to y’all Daniel.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  14. dan wrote:

    Well, Daniel has recommended a song or two, but this one may be worth queuing up at the beginning of these remarks:

    It’s a short song but I think it captures something of the unspeakable nature of grief. Because, you see, even when you do have the space and the people with whom you can share even the depths of your sorrow — people who will pick glass out of your hands and wash vomit out of your hair and who will be there with you when the same thing happens again the next weekend — even when all that is in place… what can you really say? What will unburden you of your sorrow? What words can comfort you?

    There’s nothing you can say to lessen my grief. What I need, is the space to be loved while it manifests in a whole multitude of ways. And, that, my friends, is a whole different story. Maybe you’ll let me pour my heart out to you, and maybe you’ll be sweet and empathetic… but will you let me get drunk and self-destructive with you? Will you let me puke on your shoes and piss on your rug? What about tomorrow? What about the day after? What, you think this grief is gone just because you nodded your head and shed a few tears with me? Are you new here?

    Anyway, one of the reasons why I like the song I link to at the beginning is that it skirts around the unspeakable and, rather than trying to speak it, it reminds us of what we can and cannot say. Maybe they were reading Wittgenstein when they wrote that song… or maybe they were in a hospital chapel.

    (And I reckon that song is over now, so here’s another one from the hospital: ).

    I’ve spent far more hours in hospitals than I ever thought I would but it wasn’t time spent in the chapels that changed my prayer life, it was time spent in the E.R. It was in an emergency room back somewhere around ’99 that I prayed to the good Lord for my brother to die. He had been in and out of there for years, and at that point he was so ill that, although over six feet tall, he weighed under 95 pounds (I tell ya, nothing will put a young fellow off of charistmatic Christianity faster than watching some people get gold teeth while at the same time your brother is quietly groaning and quietly wasting away in the back). Anyway, back in the E.R. (again), watching my amazingly stoic brother writhe in pain (again), and watching the doctors poke and prod and come to no definite conclusion (again), made something change in me. I stopped praying for God to save him. Ain’t no healing coming our way. I started praying for him to die: “Lord, take him home. It’s too much. Take him home.” Amen?

    I don’t know if they are praying for people to die at the AAR gathering. I’ve never been to such a meeting, although I reckon I would attend if they ever decide to come to the chemical valley where I’ve now chosen to locate myself, but I can’t help but think they are probably suggesting that we should not pray for people to die — love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, don’t get caught up in the military industrial complex, all that jazz. That’s all fine, as far as it goes, but it misses what the hospitals teach us: we don’t pray for the deaths of our enemies, we pray for the deaths of our loved ones.

    In my years of journeying alongside of various members of street-involved groups, I’ve seen a lot of loved ones die. Kids who were gunned down. Sex workers who succumbed to Hepatitis. The drug users who overdosed. The great cloud of witnesses (against us?) who found they could not go on any longer and chose to end their own lives. Often, folks think that it is the deaths that are the hardest thing to deal with in this sort of journey. But it’s not. Things are so fucked up out there, that even something like Death — the final enemy — begins to look like a friend (something well captured here: ).

    What is the hard part, isn’t so much the dying, as the living. Maybe that is a hard thing to understand at some highfalutin’ gathering of scholars and authors and wannabes, pimping their books, and papers, and institutions, because maybe the living seems pretty easy at that point and maybe, at that point, it’s also easy to think that all the pretty ideas folks throw around are gonna change the world. Wouldn’t that be nice? But the livin’ ain’t all that easy, and while everybody wines and dines and socializes at AAR, there’s this community of First Nations people here whose kids are all dying because of their proximity to the chemical plants, who can’t get no answers from the government or from the corporations, and who pretty much don’t have a friend in the world. And communities like this one are a dime a dozen. Not hard to find if you just venture out of the academy… you know, if you ventured into grief-stricken spaces.

    Meanwhile, back here on the white side of my chemical valley, there’s some crazy young guy who wants to be the pastor of a megachurch… he thinks God called him to that and writes a blog called “Josh, his best friend God, and the Megachurch journey” or something like that (amazing, right?). I guess the good Lord saved him from drugs back in the day (but maybe not from psychotic delusions of grandeur). I recently spoke at a city council meeting trying to save a wonderful little low-barrier shelter (to no avail, of course) and this pastor also showed up and went on a mind-numbing rant that sure as hell didn’t help our case. Anyway, I sort of filed him away in my mind as a real nutcase and then the other day one of the homeless young guys showed up at the place where I was writing. He was rocking a smoking hot shiner, and seemed a little disoriented, but he came to tell me that he wanted to share some “good news” (as in euangelion) with us: he was getting baptized next week and guess who was going to baptize him? The crazy megachurch guy.

    Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways, which I’m sure is part of the reason why AAR goes on and on (that and people also need careers that provide financial stability and enough for a pleasant retirement far from homeless shelters and hospitals). And I’ve gone on far too long now. Daniel, I may not say a prayer for your friends (what’s the point?), but I’ll pour a little out for them next time I’m drinking. And for you as well. Shine on.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  15. Hey DanO glad the post got through. And you can piss on my rug whenever you need to (just not in front of my dogs, they were the devil to house train!). I rolled up a longer reflection on my blog with something on Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’ rather than take up more of Halden’s space. One thing though, if your having a hard time figuring out the point of praying sometimes, or maybe your just mad at God, or have lost all your faith, or whatever, you can do what I do. Over at you’ll find the ‘Red Nuns of Dublin.’ You can e-mail your prayers to them and then because they got a 24 hr live cam, you can check up on them and see to it that they are putting in the knee-time! Seriously, I have used them a lot and they are the real deal, and they don’t even ask for a money! However, after a wealthy friend experienced a significant healing after contacting them I got him to send in a sizable donation and we got a couple of free rosary’s to boot! True, he also went to Germany and got some stem-cell treatment that is illegal here, but we are chalking this one up the sisters. God bless y’all, Obliged.

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  16. dan wrote:

    On second thought, maybe I should have linked to Shellac’s “Prayer to God” instead of the Weakerthans or Death Cab:

    That’s a contemporary Ps 139. Try playing that in church.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  17. The brighter the light the darker the shadow.

    Thanks for the Shellac link DanO I have an e-mail for you later (but my Hebrew is a little rusty, is that the new Steinsaltz translation of Psalm 139 Shellac is quoting from?). I have a hunch though that that’s how a lot of my/our prayers sound to God, not our words but our hearts. Kinda like one of those ‘the shadow knows’ cartoons. I pray something like: ‘Dear Jesus, I just ask that you bless Tom at work Father God and just reveal your love and truth to him so that he may just come to grow in your wisdom Father God….’ And God actually hears me praying, ‘Hail mighty Khrist-inator, I would order that that weasely motherfu%#ker, my boss Chip, would fall into the french fry maker and sizzle to a painful and crispy death. I am just sick of that teenage G.E.D. bastard ordering me around (me who is only 5 credits and a thesis away from an M.A. in Post-Colonial/Feminist studies) and always making me do the dirty work around here. And Khrist, if you won’t kill him then please just burn off all his skin until he comes to believe exactly like I do, and submits to me as his master on all things here on earth, that is, until I come to rule at your right hand in heaven…Amen‘ The shadow knows….
    That’s why I leave most of my praying to the professionals (Red Nuns) or else stick to reading prayers out of books, I reckon God has gotten a belly full of all of my whining and bull shit by now anyway. Sometimes I actually wish that at my third baptism and second dunking back in 1970, I would have come up out of the water speaking in tongues, as much time as I spend babbling like an idiot I may as well get some thing out of it! Though I came close about 15 months ago when they stopped my wife’s heart for 4 hrs and she suffered massive blood clots in her brain and we were wondering if she was even going to wake up. Then I prayed in every way I could think of, and I didn’t worry about making sense or analyzing my metaphors, I was just a dumb kid wailing in pain and needing his father’s help, and you know what? God answered them prayers (and I know Roger and some others here at ID, along with those Red Nuns were praying too, and I thank y’all again). I was able to bear up through months of recovery and my wife is doing amazingly well now, I ain’t afraid to call it a miracle. Now is maybe not the time or place to get into some of the other times things didn’t work our so well for me and others (or is it? I deal with that a bit in my reflection on Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’ over at TzimTzum). But for now, I am thanking God everyday for my wife’s healing, even though some days I don’t mean it, or even believe it…..The shadow knows, Obliged.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

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