I remember my first experience with mourning. I was in the first grade. My mother and father had been divorced for a few years, but I still saw my father on weekends, which seemed normal to me. That year my father married a woman with three children. I was delighted to be in the wedding. My stepsister and I wore matching orange dresses with white eyelet trim. In addition to my own brother, Todd, I was thrilled to inherit two stepbrothers. After a weekend spent together not long after the wedding, however, my father announced he was dropping me off for the last time. He was moving to another state. He wasn’t going to see me on weekends anymore. He didn’t know when he would ever see me again. He wasn’t leaving my mother his address.
Cast into the Sea
All of this took place in California, right over the San Andreas Fault. This was earthquake country, and we always knew someday the “Big One” would hit and cast us into the ocean. Hearing my father say goodbye, I knew this was the Big One. I was cast into the sea. I watched my father drive his big green van to the corner, turn, and disappear. I ran to my bedroom, the ground around me shaking.
Children are born mimics. Why? Because they’re in love. It’s not the falling in love that we associate with lovers, for children are born into love. For a child love is a location. It’s expected from all who live there. My father and I were one. I mimicked him because he was life, and I loved his life—our life. Everything I did was for him. “Daddy, watch me skate!” “Daddy listen to me spell Christmas.” “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” I regularly exclaimed with insurmountable joy about everything I discovered. I was not performing; I was coming alive, and my father was my witness, my teacher, my life giver.
Before my father left, it was his habit to take my brother and me to the city pool. There I clung to him like a barnacle. I loved being attached to him, the warmth of his body giving comfort amid the cold waters. Never for a moment did I doubt that he wanted me clinging to him every bit as much as I wanted to cling. He was comfort, and I was comforted. Until that last day when he drove away, I didn’t know I was separate from my father. I didn’t know the choice to leave existed. When my father made that choice, I was cast into the water without hope. This was mourning, my convulsive sobs explaining death to me.
Perhaps this Beatitude describes those cast into that cold sea. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matt. 5:4). But where is the comfort? Where is the blessing?
Where’s the Blessing?
A friend of mine called the other day. She asked, “Are you afraid that God will test you?” Then there was silence. “Hello? Hello?” I asked, thinking we were disconnected. “I’m here,” she finally managed. “Do you think God might test us by taking away someone we love?” In a tear-filled voice she enumerated the tragedies that surround us every day; she mentioned Virginia Tech, random disease, war, accidents. She couldn’t bear it if she lost a daughter or her husband. She asked me directly, “Do you ever think about these things?”
I recalled that very day as I was walking through the garden, sweaty from bundling dead branches and digging up weeds, the thought of losing my husband suddenly shot through my mind. Earlier that day my husband came home feeling tired. He described how he felt so weak that he feared he might faint. His body suddenly looked frail to me. I was reminded that life is brief and fragile and I could lose him at any time; my heart sank. I have loved this man for 22 years. No, I don’t want to lose my husband. No, I don’t want to lose the man who is so intertwined in my heart and mind that I would quite literally lose life, my life as well as his.
To my friend I replied, “You must convert that fear of loss into a deeper appreciation for those you love. Love them even more.”
What kind of answer was that? Why didn’t I try to comfort her by saying God will never test you more than you can bear or you just have to let God be all you need or something like that? Instead I asked my friend to increase her level of potential loss by loving even more. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted. What kind of irony is this?
For most of my life I did not believe this deep saying of Jesus. Mourning and blessing shared no relationship that I could see. In fact the severity of my mourning tempted me to love less.
I constructed a fortress of calm that nothing could penetrate. I studied psychology, I read self-help books, and I looked into 12-step programs in an effort to be free of pain. I became an expert in detachment. I neared that plateau where I could be completely happy alone. There I discovered that seeking comfort for comfort’s sake is akin to Jesus’ words, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33, NRSV). I found no comfort in a life free of pain or attachment, only a stifled heart and mind. The opposite of pain is not joy but, rather, a life-numbing detachment. I sought comfort for comfort’s sake. But comfort rarely comes when we seek it; it only comes well after we have loved enough to mourn.
After my many wrong-headed attempts at fixing the pain in my life, Jesus’ words finally had their way with me. I waded back into the experience of mourning. Yes, pain and loss returned, but now as I face these dark companions again, they bear a different message: love. I now hear the wisdom of the ages in the mouth of my 6-year-old self. I am born into love and I am marked with it! I am wonderfully and unapologetically made for others!
Now, 40 years removed from my childhood loss, my mourning explains my finitude, my need, my dependence, my humanity. Mourning has become a witness to love and evidence of its reality. I mourn because I have known love. Mourning is a tutor branding my heart with the beauty and necessity of love.
My experience of mourning has also given me a deeper appreciation of God’s mourning for his people. I recognize the alienation Jesus felt when he was rejected. Jesus, God’s own body, has plunged into our sea of pain, our ocean of mourning. God stands waiting for us to recognize that he longs for us. God desires to live with us in a land where there is no separation, no ending of love.
My courage to love despite loss comes from God’s own courage to love us. God is astonished and wounded by our utter rejection. He mourns. And he keeps loving. And though life will continue to shake us all, God’s own warm body is in this sea, and there we delight in the discovery of our finite humanity while attached like a barnacle to our infinite God. We learn to mimic God because we are in love, and we joyfully shout to him, “Father, look at us, we’re alive!”
- When have you mourned? Describe the experience and the accompanying feelings.
- Discuss Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted.” How do you understand and experience those words?
- What new understanding of God’s love does this article open up for you? How is human love connected to God’s love?
- Although we are made for love, we open ourselves to the possibility of great pain by loving. How do you cope with this paradox?
- Which quote in this article is most meaningful to you? Why?