Earlier this week, I was the guest teacher for one of our religion classes at the college. It had been on my calendar for months, but I waited until the last minute to prepare. I put it off, and when I finally sat down to ready myself, I struggled to know what I should say.
The class, Death and Dying in World Religions, is meant to help students understand death in world religions through a study of religious attitudes and practices, ethical issues, and Western and Asian theological perspectives. I pulled that description directly from the syllabus. The topic is fascinating to me; one I wish I had been able to study when I was a religion major twenty years ago. But, oh, how I struggled to know what to say.
The professor, a colleague and friend, asked me to come and talk about how my work integrates with the topic with special attention to the ways I visit the sick and dying, plan and conduct funerals and memorial services, and walk with people through the grief associated with death and other forms of loss. In other words, I was going to be one of her practical examples. Or at least that’s how I saw it. But why was I struggling with this so much?
It’s not lost on me that almost one year ago to the day, my grandmother died. This was a woman who had helped raise me. She and my grandfather lived two doors down from me for the first eighteen years of my life, and her influence was immense. Even though I knew her death was coming, I grieved that loss and continue to do so. Maybe that was the reason I struggled so much getting ready for this class. Maybe.
I had been told that the class was reading C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed. The book is a classic and offers Lewis’ personal reflections after the death of his spouse. It demonstrates his raw and often tender emotions and brings into question his previously held thoughts about life and death, marriage, and God. The first line of the book alone is extremely telling, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” (Lewis, 15).
As I continued my academic preparation for the class, I picked up another book on grief that I appreciate, This Thing Called Grief by Thomas M. Ellis. Ellis reminded me in the opening pages that we should beware the grief experts because the only real expert on grief is the person going through it – experiencing a particular loss at a particular moment (Ellis, xiv). It was as if the doors were opened and a deep peace came over me when I read that. Not just about the grief process, but more immediately in terms of how I would approach the class.
Instead of worrying about what I would teach the class, I simply spoke from my experiences with death and grief – some personal and some as part of my vocation. I told them how I consider it a truly sacred part of my work to walk with people as they die and as others grieve their loss.
I’m deeply aware that with holidays around the corner we’ll be surrounded by celebrations and other festive moments. But there’s also much grief in our midst. People are grieving loved ones who have died. People also grieve the loss of a job, a marriage or other relationship, the loss of innocence and more. Loss and the grief that comes with it is always in our midst. And there are no grief experts except for the one going through the grief. Sometimes our best gift to give the person who grieves is to be present, listen, and create a space where they can tell that particular story.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.