Resting with Grief: Tributaries December 2021

In November, my brother in-law passed away. His death was unexpected. He was young. He meant the world to the people who loved him. Now there is a huge gaping hole in my family—especially in the lives of my sister and their three teenage children. My sister lost her husband, and her children lost their father. Days after my brother in-law passed away, I watched my sister as she walked around her house, talked with her kids, and made plans for his funeral. I wondered how they would ever move on. I don’t know that they will. 

I am navigating my own grief. The other day I was driving down Lake Street in Minneapolis with my wife and kids. We passed by Mercado Central, a shopping center full of food vendors, arts and crafts, and community services. Seeing the mercado reminded me of the time my brother in-law used tortillas from a tortilleria in the meal he prepared for the rehearsal dinner prior to my wedding. It was his gift to my then fiancé and me. For him, food was love. In a moment like that, when a memory leads to storytelling which leads to connection with loved ones, my grief is manageable.  

But sometimes grief sneaks up and stings me. The salt of my sadness is overwhelming and my eyes overflow with tears. In those moments I am in a deep sorrow that feels impossible to overcome.  

Other times my grief is like freezing wind blowing across a plain. It steals my breath and chills me to the bone. I stand there, stunned, and confused. How can he be gone? The plain of my grief feels too vast and desolate to traverse. 

So, I search for photos of my brother-in-law. I search for the life that once existed. There is a photograph I visit every day. We are standing together, our arms around each other, smiling. He hated having his photo taken, but this one he asked the photographer to take. That moment has now become a meditation for me each day. 

At Headwaters one of the main themes for this year is radical rest. We are exploring the role that rest plays in healing communities and people.  

In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes, “When we fall asleep, our bodies shift into maintenance mode and devote themselves to storing energy, fixing or replacing damaged cells, and growing, while our brains clean out toxins, process the day’s experiences, and sometimes work on problems that have been occupying our waking minds.”  

Rest is something that all people deserve. Not because they earned it through work but because it is a divine human right. Rest can be a place where people commune with their sadness or their joy. Rest is the nourishment we give our minds, bodies, and souls. 

As I navigate my grief, I am asking tough questions about rest. Is rest the absence of stress, anger, and sadness? What exactly is so radical about rest? 

What I am learning is that, for me, rest is not the absence of stress, anger, or sadness.  

There are so many people in my life who dread this time of year. The days are shortening as twilight begins its descent around midafternoon. By 6 p.m. the night sky is completely black and the only sounds I hear outside are dogs barking and a lonesome owl hunting for food. Right now, the dark feels like a solace to me. 

So, the other night I went to bed early with my sorrow for company. It was with me as I tried to read a book; my sorrow refused to let me ignore it. My sorrow wanted to be acknowledged. It didn’t want to be quiet, so I invited it to cozy up with me.  

Together we burrowed under the covers of my bed in pitch blackness. There was something comforting about simply being with my sorrow. I let myself feel it and I welcomed the tears. They washed over my face, rapidly at first. Then, my tears slowed and so did my breath. Eventually, everything felt quiet. My sorrow was not gone but its presence was not as acute and disorienting. It was as if my sorrow was relieved. Relieved to be acknowledged. Relieved to be held.