Grief and Holy Week

One of the factors that influenced the way our congregation observes Lent and Holy Week is my own personal experience with grief and loss. As a pastor, I am familiar with grief. I am often the first one called when death occurs - often I am called to attend to the moment of death. I learned early in my career that death itself is not frightening or terrible. Being at bedside at the moment that a person takes her or his last breath is not a traumatic experience. It makes one aware that human life is precious. It also makes one aware that there is more going on than what meets the eye.

Our grief, however, is more than a reaction to final moments. It is the product of a lifetime of memories and relationships. Me mourn the passing of one we have loved and our mind is filled with what might have been. We are saddened by the words left unsaid, the experiences that cannot be shared, the possibilities left unfulfilled.

Grief will come to every human being in one form or another. I learned this early on in my career when, as an intern, I found myself teaching stress management classes. Armed with information from the then-new research of Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe on the relationship between stress and physical illness, I expanded the course curriculum on how grief works in our lives. Working with Granger Westberg, whose work into grief demonstrated that grief occurs not only when death occurs, but also at other points of loss, I began to examine the ways grief affects our lives in many different ways.

Grief was, however, in the early years of my career, academic. I studied other people’s grief. I learned how to assist them in their journeys. I mastered the rudiments of officiating at funerals. Then, just a few years into my career, my father received a cancer diagnosis. The cancer was aggressive and the treatment options were limited. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy all provided short-term treatment, but the result was that he died just 15 months after I learned of the diagnosis. It wasn’t my first experience with death. I had lost a sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles. But the death of my father was different from all of my previous experiences.

Fortunately for me, I was immersed in the church and the church is practiced in grief. The congregations I was serving were very understanding and supportive and allowed me to experience grief in the context of loving and caring people.

I did begin to think of discipleship, especially the disciples’ following Jesus into Jerusalem and their experiences of his arrest, trial and crucifixion in different ways. The stories that we read every Lent and Holy Week somehow had different meanings for me. I began to incorporate the liturgy of the passion into the Holy Week observances of the congregations that I served. At first we read the entire passion story as a part of the observance of Palm Sunday. Palm and Passion Sunday is observed in many congregations. The readings for Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem are followed by the reading of the passion story - in some congregations excerpts from the texts, in others the complete text from a single gospel.

I began a practice of working carefully for a dramatic reading of the passion story.

My theory, shared with many other church leaders, was that many people experience only the Sunday activities of the church. No matter how dramatic Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services are, many Christians only attend the Palm Sunday and Easter Services. If there is no contact with the passion story, they miss a critical part of the story.

More recently, however, I have come to the conclusion that Holy Week is an important spiritual discipline, even if fewer people experience the services. For several years, now, our congregation has offered services every day of Holy Week, creating unique experiences for worshipers that allow them to delve deeply into the experience of grief and loss. I sometimes tell people that Holy Week is an opportunity to practice skills for what will inevitably come to every human being - to experience grief in a controlled setting before it is immensely personal in completely unavoidable. In Holy Week one can choose a single service, or dive more deeply into multiple experiences as their circumstances permit.

Having said that, I choose to participate in all of the services. the week reminds me of what happens to grieving families between the time of death and the funeral service. There are plans to be laid. There are meals to be served. And while all of this is going on, life continues outside of the church. Headlines are made. Meetings occur. Jobs must be completed.

It is not life as usual. Sleep and eating patterns are disrupted. Thoughts of loss and sadness come in unexpected and unpredictable waves. Some things have to be put off or simply left undone. We go into a kind of survival mode - hunker down and get through the experience.

One thing I learned early in my work with those who grieve is that grief is exhausting. People who are grieving become tired. And being overly tired has powerful effects on emotions. Our emotions are somehow more raw and closer to the surface. Tears occur when we don’t expect them. Laughter bursts forth at moments that can seem inappropriate. Anger rears up unexpectedly. Pain sears deeply.

So we plan passive as well as active events for our Holy Week. Today we simply sit with our grief. We don’t seek solutions. We don’t offer closure. We simply experience what is going on. At the church this evening we’ll host a blues concert with professional musicians sharing the rich tradition of American Blues Music. I don’t have any sermon to deliver. I don’t have any readings to prepare. I am allowed to sit with the congregation and share the moment. It is an evening of release.

In a sense Holy Week is just beginning. But we have already gone deep with our experiences and their meanings. There is much to ponder as we sit with the blues tonight.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!