It’s perhaps something the ancient faiths and traditions understood better than we do where there are rituals for grief; whether it be Jewish communities sitting Shi’vah or the Irish keening their songs of mourning, they acknowledge the enormity of grief and the need for communities to come together to process it.
Where the loss is more personal, we can seem to lose access to the healing found in community traditions. When the loss is because of illnesses still so misunderstood and stigmatised, these processes and traditions can feel even further away, still.
There are paths through the thicket of loss. William Worden, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association speaks of four tasks of mourning which include accepting the reality of the loss, processing the pain of grief, adjusting to the world afresh and finally finding enduring connection. These tasks were designed with bereavement in mind, but they seem to me to speak to losses in the broadest sense and I have found them to be true in mental illness.
In the Bible we find this prophet Nehemiah, who is tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after the Israelites exile in Babylon. They’ve returned home, but home doesn’t look like they imagined to, the place they longed for no longer exists, and they have to accept before they can begin to grieve what has passed. Author Marya Hornbacher writes that
“managing mental illness is mostly about acceptance- of the things you can’t do, and the things you must”
and I see it every day - perhaps you do too - as I take the medication and get the sleep that’s required for some kind of equilibrium to be maintained
Nehemiah grieves and weeps over the city for an estimated four months; but there is no set timescale for such things, we simply have to let it have its way with us until the raw pain has faded into an ache we can tolerate. In the Christian tradition this is called lament; it’s grief directed at God, bringing the pain before him in a way that acknowledges the twin realities of God’s goodness and our grief’s greatness. It is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but it is the gift of honesty. We do not need to put on our Sunday best for God, but can come in our brokenness and mess knowing that we will not be abandoned to it.
And then we begin to adjust to the new normal we find ourselves in. We test the boundaries of what we can do as anyone in recovery does. There is a slow almost imperceptible move towards more of life; a trip to the local shop much like I did during that disorientating visit to the co-op, a visit from a friend or a phone call answered, long avoided. Nehemiah returns to his work for the King - but even then the King asks him why he’s looking so sad. We need not rush in with fake smiles before grief has finished with us, but be honest with those around us - and with God.