Our son had to have his family’s aged cocker spaniel put down a few days ago. Little Zoey, full of personality but prone to the seizures that eventually did her in. If you’ve ever been through that experience, you know how emotionally painful it can be. I’d wrap them all in a big hug but they’re three thousand miles away.
It’s hard on us not to be able to console them in the flesh. I’m thinking especially about Madelyn the Wonder Child, who is 11 and has never known a day without Zoey in the house. How might she be processing this loss, her first real brush with death?
One thing I want to say to her, and will say to her, is that there’s a reason we’re built for feelings – including painful ones. You know how the Marines in basic training say that pain is weakness leaving the body? Seems to me that emotional pain is callousness leaving the soul. When we feel deeply – and it’s not only grief and loss, it’s also deep love and joy –
we are dragged further along the road to being the nuanced, emotionally agile people whom God calls us to become.
It’s natural to want to push the hard emotions away, numb them with alcohol or drugs or overwork or diversion, or to deny their existence. But when we give ourselves space and time, lots of time, to just sit with those emotions, something shifts deep inside. And from that point on, we’re more empathetic toward our fellow human beings, knowing that suffering is the one universal in the human condition. We’re all hurting. Working through grief and loss teaches us that.
You can’t live the entirety of life in your head, and this truth is a growing edge for me. When you’re a bookish school-nerd kid growing up, you get rewarded for being in your head. And then I guess you spend the rest of your life learning how limiting that is to a full and rich life. I’m still learning.
One place I’m learning is in worship, which can have its intellectual moments, but feels most authentic and most moving in those times when feelings trump ideas. When the music swells or harmonizes and it hits you in the gut, or when someone’s testimony makes you appreciate our spiritual home all the more. Passing the Light of Christ on Christmas Eve always does it for me as well. And as they’ll do with my grieving beloved, those gut-level engagements with the world make all the difference.