Jan Richardson is one of my favourite creative writers in the Christian tradition. I’ve used her poetry in sermons, at retreats and gatherings too many times to count over the course of my ministry. I have also found inspiration from her words in my personal life of prayer.
Jan came to love late in life, sharing only four short years of marriage with her husband Gary before he died tragically of a brain aneurysm.. Not surprisingly, Jan set out to heal the wound left in her heart by her husband’s death through her writing. The book she first published three years after Gary’s death includes these words in the introduction:
“Grief is piercingly particular. There is hardly any limit to the ways loss will find us, entering our lives not only through the death of someone we love but also through the myriad of others ways life can wrest from us what we have held dear. When grief does find us – however it finds us – it shapes itself precisely to the details of our lives. It fits itself to our habits and routines, our relationships, our priorities, what we have organized our lives around – all that makes us who we are in this world. Because of this, no one will know our grief as we do. No one will inhabit it in the same way we do. No one will entirely understand what it is like to live with our specific shattering.”*
Something I have noticed about this pandemic we are collectively enduring, is that from the beginning it’s consequences have impacted people in very particular ways. Back in March, there were those who relished the time the initial lock down provided for introspection and those who languished behind closed door with too much time for introspection. There were those who engaged in anticipatory grief declaring we were going to be in this for years to come, our world changed forever. And there were those living in denial thinking we would be done with it all by the end of April. As we approach the 25th of December, I am noticing similar patterns of particularity. Some are devastated that Christmas will not be what it has always been. Others are looking forward to a quiet Christmas without their extended family. And then there are those who are taking it all in stride and may not realize what they’ve lost until it’s gone.
Grief is piercingly particular and perhaps that should come as no surprise to us because although we are in this together, our collective we is made up of a plethora of individual “me’s.” And some individuals have experienced the kind of personal losses this year that would have found us regardless of the pandemic ,because to live and to love is to be vulnerable. None of us will ever escape grief’s claim on our lives. Whether it has found us in 2020, or in previous years or whether it finds us in 2021, grief is universal. In our living, each one of us will know loss.
And there is something hauntingly beautiful about that. Grief can connect us across deep divides.
And yet because we do experience loss according to the particular way life graced us with whatever we held dear, grief can also leave us feeling isolated and alone.
And so it is good for us to be reminded of the words of Psalm 139, and the way that God, sacred mystery and never ending love, also comes to us in the particularity of our lives: Each one of us knit together in the womb of the woman who birthed us, each one of us fearfully and wonderfully made, each one of us fully known by the one who created us and therefore there is nowhere we can go, nowhere we can flee from God’s presence. At the height of joy, God is there, in the depths of our most excruciating sorrow, God is there, even when God is silent.
And because of that, as surely as we will all know grief in our lives, we all have within us the capacity to know love, to know healing, to know we are companioned in our grief, each of us according to the particularity of our own lives.
At this time of year, the darkest time of year in the western hemisphere, we gather around an ancient story about light that comes into the darkness of our lives. We gather around the mystery of how it is that this light comes to us in human form to a particular man and a particular woman in a particular location in our world as if to say, this is how God, how light and love is made manifest in our world, in the particular circumstances of our individual lives to bring us a universal message of hope, grace, healing and peace.
Whatever your life circumstances may be, however you may be feeling this Christmastide, may you hear and know the wonder of this truth, this message of love, this message of light that comes to you and to each one of us in the particularity of our individual life circumstances.
*Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, Wanton Gospeller Press, 2016.