Contemplative Life

Tragedy and Grief

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My summer beach trip began with great promise. The tides and temperatures both were cooperating so that by week’s end I expected to loll in the surface and allow the waves to beat on sun-drenched shoulders. By Sunday afternoon, everyone but one brother and his son had arrived, and they were on their way. My sister and her two sons were kayaking on the creek in the marsh. The rest of us were on the sand at the ocean.

Tragedy struck. While getting out of the kayak at the end of the trip, my sister somehow fell into the creek and drowned. She was quickly pulled onto the dock and expert rescue efforts were applied, including CPR. The rescue squad arrived and transported quickly. But, the damage was done during the short period she was under water. She had inhaled and drowned. She died on the dock. The tragedy played out over the next hour or so during which first responders and emergency medical personnel tried to revive her.

My entire family plunged into grief. For me, grief ushered me into liminal space. Liminal space is a place of transition—where what was is over but what is to be is not yet known. It is a place in which there are no short cuts and no easy solutions, a place that must be traversed one step at a time. It is a place of confusion and seeming emptiness. Time in the normal sense seems to be irrelevant. One’s focus narrows and few things seem to matter. It is a place God uses for transformation. It is a place from which resolve and new direction emerge. Moses lived the last 40 years of his life in the liminal space of the Sinai desert, having left Egypt but not yet arriving in the Promised Land. The disciples after the Crucifixion and before encountering the Risen Lord lived in liminal space. In this space I am learning new things about grief, which I want to share.

It has been said that grief comes in stages. Unfortunately, the term “stages” suggests linearity. In my own experience grief is comprised of several responses, seemingly random and repetitive in occurrence. This time around, I encountered shock and numbness, which seemed to me like being suspended from reality. I encountered anger and depression with its effect of decreased ability to function. I seemed to reach acceptance for awhile but them something happens and I find back to suspension of reality, depression or anger.

Here are some other things I’ve noticed about grief.

  1. Grief is relational. Typically, the closer the relationship, the deeper the grief.
  2. Grief is painful. As my brother said in his eulogy, the stronger the love, the greater the pain.
  3. Grief is personal. Each one of her family and friends had a relationship with my sister that was special and unique. So grief looked a little different for each of us. We allowed each of us personal space, but not too much. It’s not okay to retreat into oneself and stay there.
  4. Grief is communal. My family understood that my sister’s community was large and that our availability to her community was helpful for communal grief. In our case that meant two memorial services and receptions and several “wake-type” gatherings. We listened and told stories. We celebrated her life. All of which helped all of us grieve.

In the midst of tragedy, I encountered the love and kindness of so many people. Today I sat with all of the sympathy cards I received, all in some way or other reaching out to touch me to express sorrow, hope to come, and comfort and peace that comes not from this present world but from God. I allowed these cards to pull me into the many, many hugs and tears of the last few weeks. God blessed and comforted me through community. My favorite card was a kite card. A mom, explaining life and death and hope to her 5 year old daughter, as she prepared her kite card invited her daughter to make a card to. And so she did. Her kite is an invitation to look up! We have hope.

Two weeks after the tragedy, God gave me a way to express my experience.

The Door


Standing at the door, looking in.

A bed. Devices. Life support.

Hope, no hope.



The door, not by choice, enter.

Willing? Reluctant? Passive?

Exit only. Unexpected, without warning.

No! Don’t let go!


The door, open.

It’s pull, beckoning, grasping. Cords reaching, encircling, binding.

It’s hold fast and terrible.

It won’t let go.


Seen and heard.



Not understood.


Blue eyes glassy, blank, staring.


Arm flung precariously sideways.

Only her body.


There on the dock by the marsh in the afternoon sun, another, unseen.

Kneeling, reaching out, gently lifting, holding tightly.

Her soul.



Brilliant blue sky, looking up.

Open door.

Breaking holds below.





Not understood.



The door snapping shut.

Sharp penetrating ring.

Lights flashing. Siren wailing.

Silence, shock. Final.


The door?

Called from deep within.

Cling not, but go.

Tell of the door.


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