How Sacred Story Guides Us Through the Deep Forest of Grief
Our first child arrived into the world 22 years ago today. But something was wrong. He struggled to breathe and twenty minutes later was pronounced dead. It was a full-term pregnancy and up until that point there had been no question of viability. To have a son born and die on the same day without any advance warning launched me into the deepest grief I have ever known.
In mythic terms, when a person experiences great loss, they enter a forest where there is no path. The stages of grief may be predictable, but the shape and contours of each of those stages is unique to everyone who walks the path. Each person has to find their own way. Some may pass through the deepest, darkest part of the wood early on. They may fear, as I did, that they will never find their way out. For others that section of forest comes later. Some come out into frequent clearings where the warmth of the sun hits their face. Others walk the whole wood never once experiencing the dappled light of day.
Sacred stories can’t give you the specifics of your particular path. Nothing can. What sacred stories can do, however, is provide reassurance that the dark wood you are in does not comprise the whole map. A sacred story will honour the forest, and the path that must be taken through it, but it will also reveal the forest’s limits and boundaries. A sacred story provides a bird’s eye perspective of the wide, sunlit landscapes on the far side. It’s this perspective that can get a person through the forest, that can give them the courage to journey deeper in.
There are many such stories in the biblical narrative. The story of Jesus is one of them. Like a lantern it casts light on the next step and then the next. His own journey through sorrow and loss and death invites us not to project our pain outward at those around us (which is the fallback script of a retributive culture like ours), but to stay with the pain. To bear the tension of it. And ultimately to trust that the path will lead us to new terrain on the far side of the forest.
The Christian tradition has a name for this ancient story. It’s called the Paschal Mystery.
Aden’s funeral took place six days later at the church where I was pastoring. The first thing I saw when I walked into the crowded sanctuary behind my son’s tiny coffin were the kids of the Eastside Story Guild sitting on the very front pew. They were a group of a dozen or so ranging in age from 3-18, and represented an East Vancouver mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
It was the very first season of the very first story guild, yet already, the kids were leaning against each other, arms intertwined with matching blue story guild t-shirts that read “Where my story and God’s Story meet’. I was comforted knowing that this group of kids knew what every kid deserves to know: that they were a part of a Story large enough to hold all of life, including theirs, in both its beauty and its heartache.
Thank you for sharing your vulnerability, loss, and understanding of grace with us through this story–I pray that both will continue to guide you day-by-day.
Thanks, Fiona. We journey together.
OH HOW BEAUTIFUL and wondrous is this writing .
Remember out Time in St Thomas’ s on Huron St in Toronto before Aiden was born ? I was so conscious of his ”being”in there at Mass with us , Tam .
Love to all of you … today very especially ,
I love the picture of Aden taking in mass from the womb!
Oh, bless you both. I hadn’t known that you had lost a child. I am heartened by your writing and your courage. Thank you.
Thanks Carrie. Grateful to be held by a Story larger than our own.
Grief! A path with gaping holes and faint light and heart opening beauty. Thank you for sharing Tama. Your Story Guild gift to our church is so appreciated. Thank you from one mother to another.
You are held especially today in God’s Grace.
Thanks, Meg. The terrain of a mother’s heart…
One of God’s Sparrows. Our love to you all.
Perfect: our Aden, the sparrow. Thank you, Duff.
Tama, Aden’s short life, and news of his death came as a deep shock to Joyann and me, because Simeon was born just the day before Aden, and in the same ward as you were at B.C. Women’s, and also because both boys were so joyfully expected by the same congregation. Holding our newborn, on his first outing into the world, at one week old, through Aden’s funeral service at Grandview Calvary was an unspeakable grief, which was felt so much more by Joyann, than me, as she, like you, was still recovering from a difficult birth. Holding Aden, and having you hold Simeon during that first week of your loss, was a gift to us, and helped me approach the mystery – that our son was alive and your newborn was to be buried. In the 22 years that have passed, even though we are continents and hemispheres apart, the memory of Aden’s face and the feeling of his body in my arms, and the memory of all the tears in that service, and of your and Loren’s tributes to and laments for little Aden, have come back to me unbidden more than a few times, and with them something of your and Loren’s grief. In a very small way we have shared an iota of your great loss! And we continue to, at moments like this, as we remember his story, and as we see our Simeon go out into life under the Sacred Canopy. Thank you for the openness you both had over that painful time, not to hide Aden or your grief, but to share him, and yourselves, with us. We haven’t and won’t ever be the same, I guess, even once we fully apprehend the mystery. Peace to you both until we meet again!
Such beautiful words, Allen. What a tangle and weaving of grief and gladness, community and solitude shared between our two families at that time. And how soulful to reconnect after all these years. My heart has leapt at photos of the strapping, 22 year old Simeon. Your’s is a grace-filled family and there’s no one we would rather have shared the story with. Sending love and gratitude.