Stuck grief or mourning’s flowing tears

By Donald Schell

‘And death itself shall die’

As I write it’s two days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. Dad lived a good life. He was a generous and loving father and grandfather, and, as I heard at his funeral, he was also a very good physician to many people. He and I talked well. We didn’t have “unfinished business.” He died peacefully in his sleep, almost eighty-seven years old. All that sounds like the makings of good, clean, grief. Finding my way to that would be a grace suitable to such a man and such a life. I’m finding my way.

I was in my mid-thirties when my wife’s parents died. For the thirty years since I’ve been making slow discoveries about grief. My first startling discovery was noticing that the loving home I’d grown up in was drenched in grief. I was a prized firstborn, a first wave boomer baby. My dad was in medical school and our lives felt full of hope. When I was old enough to hear it, I felt proud to be named Donald for my uncle who had died in the war. Looking back, I see that to my child’s mind, ‘before I was born’ was a forever, long ago, unreachable place I didn’t even try to imagine.

My parents told fascinating stories about my uncle. He was imaginative, talented, an actor in high school, a college honors student. His life had been full of promise. Family speculated about what he’d have done had he come home. He felt like a presence with us. The stories I loved of Donald felt to me like the stories I loved to hear of my grandfather, George, mother’s father who had also died. I treasured the stories. The stories meant I was inheriting something of their gifts and their promise.

My grandfather died January 1, 1945. My uncle died June 15, 1945. I was born April 11, 1947. That chronology before I was born meant nothing to me as a child. I didn’t notice the assumptions that came with not understanding the chronology. Cherished stories of my grandfather and my uncle gave me comfortable ways of thinking about Donald and George that nothing but adult experience could break. ‘Before I was born’ hid from me that my mother’s two griefs were quite raw. And I didn’t notice that in my world, it was a given, simple, neutral fact that death could come at any time.

Eventually I learned of the other grief that shaped my parents. When I was judged ‘old enough to understand,’ I learned that my other grandmother, dad’s mother, was actually his stepmother, and I heard the story of his mother Goldie’s death. Stories of dying were familiar and this one was a very long time before I was born. So the plain given-ness of another death hid my Dad’s grief from me, his loss at never having known his mother, an old tear in the soul that time can’t quite heal.

Next summer Jonathan Moscone’s new play Ghosts Light will premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I like Moscone’s work as a director and am looking forward to seeing his work as a playwright. His play unfolds with a young theater director named ‘Jon’ working on a production of Hamlet.

Jonathan Moscone was fourteen in 1978 when Dan White, the enraged city supervisor who also killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, gunned down Jonathan’s father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Jonathan Moscone calls Ghosts Light “a dream play.” As in a dream his character Jon, while directing a production of Hamlet, finds his work haunted not just by the elder Hamlet’s ghost, but also the ghosts of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

I found odd comfort reading Jonathan Moscone in an interview say, “…there’s grieving, which is a form of stasis, and there’s mourning, which is an active form of moving through to another place.” Those simple, graceful words (and my wonder that mourning could move a fourteen year old boy beyond the static frozen grief at losing a dad to assassination) helped me think about old, stuck, grief.

I was sixty-one when my father died. I felt grateful that he died peacefully in his sleep and that we’d had so many good years together. I miss him terribly sometimes. But I’ve only shed a very few tears. Something resigned and fatalistic in me had thought for a long, long time – ‘It’s coming. They all die.’ Moscone’s distinction between “grieving” and “mourning” has me wondering about that resignation, wondering whether I really know how to mourn, to move through to another place. And as I wonder, Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” hints at the possibility of feelings fully felt and of moving from grief through mourning to comfort.

The reason I’m remembering and re-thinking is that I suspect some of my stasis with grief belongs to some old, old stories.

The oldest part of the story goes back to 1921 when Dad was delivered by C-section. His mother, Goldie, had already lost her sight to the brain tumor that would kill her. Holding her premature baby after he was delivered, she asked, ‘is he beautiful?’ and my grandfather, the father who had been present for this C-section before doctors attempted hopeless brain surgery told his dying wife, yes, their son was beautiful. Two weeks later Goldie Schell died. She was twenty-six years old.

Now in 2010 – nearly ninety years after her death, three of my children have outlived their great grandmother’s short twenty-six years. When the first of our children passed that marker, something shifted, I felt a new frustration and not really knowing who my missing grandmother had been, what she’d been like, who she might have become, and what it could have meant to me to know her. And that began the quiet ache of wondering how dad had lived his whole life knowing he’d lost her before he’d known her at all.

We only have a couple pictures of Goldie. My favorite is a 1920 photo where she seems to be play-acting ‘farm girl,’ the sun catches golden hair – a dazzling silvery white in the photo – She’s got both hands jammed in the pockets of her overalls, a straw hat knocked back on her head, and something in her radiant, crazy-playful smile makes me want to laugh. She was nurse, like my wife Ellen, so I suppose some one took a solemn photo of her at her capping ceremony. But it was this playful photo of the mother he never knew that my dad kept in his drawer, a hidden witness to his unspoken thoughts.

After I was grown, Dad told me he’d learned not talk or ask about his mother. My grandfather had remarried when Dad was still a toddler, and Dad’s new, easily angered stepmother was as unlike that sunny picture of Goldie as a person could be. Dad was relieved when he learned the sullen, sharp-tongued woman who did her best to care for him wasn’t his mother. As a teenager he’d started to build some relationship with Goldie’s brothers. His dad quietly made those occasions for him. Was grandpa stuck in his grief too?

In May of 1944, my parents left college. Dad had dropped out to join the Army Air Corps, and after basic flight school, they married, Mother took her leave from college to follow dad to Army bases around the country while he completed his flight training. When he earned his wings and shipped out to fly a B-17 in daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories, mother moved home, waiting and praying daily for Dad’s return. “It was what people were doing,” mother said. “I knew he might not come back.”

My grandfather George was a banker, and both my parents enjoyed telling stories repeating funny things he’d said or done; I loved hearing what a wry, rebellious church member he’d been, a lay leader in the church where he’d met and courted my grandmother, the church I grew up in. A few stories hinted at a workaholic whose very high standard of performance weighed heavily on himself.

They told stories of his wit, wisdom and foolishness with pride and affection. And the stories of his workaholism? Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether those were exemplary stories or cautionary tales. One story certainly was cautionary. George’s doctor told my grandmother as he lay in a coma from a heart attack that a few weeks before George had gone to the doctor with chest pains, and the doctor told him to slow down and rest. In December of 1944 his staff was closing the year-end books, George wouldn’t slow down when his staff was working hard. So he died on New Year’s Day, 1945.

My Dad never told me how he had gotten word of his father-in-law’s death. Dad was seeing a lot of death, watching for the German fighters after they crossed the channel, flying through anti-aircraft fire and shrapnel, relieved every time they got their plane back to England, wondering when the war would end, and hoping for the time he’d go home to comfort his bride. Dad was 24 when George died, and mother was 20. George himself he was only 55. Now that I’ve lived through all those ages, 24, 20, and 55 seem bitterly young.

Mother tells me that even now, sixty-five years after her father’s death, hardly a day goes by without her wishing she could tell him or ask him about something. I’m glad to hear that.

Feeling her love in that loss nudges stuck grief toward mourning.

I heard and memorized the stories of these absent people, but I didn’t know how to ask for the stories of mourning their loss. I did ask Dad about the war. “It’s why I became a physician,” was his preferred answer. If I pushed, the stories Dad was most willing to tell were of the people with whom he’d flown and of missing my mother and writing her, and sitting on an English park bench evenings after returning from a bombing run and wondering how it would all end.

The few air war stories dad would tell weren’t stories of heroism, but simply stories of seeing death.

He said precision bombing was difficult, the daylight made the bombers easier target for German anti-aircraft guns. When they arrived at a target, he had to take the plane low for bombing accuracy, into the range of the anti-aircraft guns, and fly a slow, steady course toward the target while the bombardier studied the winds. At that altitude shrapnel peppered the plane, sometimes sounding like a hailstorm, sometimes louder, metal banging against metal like the factories they were sent to destroy. Once the bombs were loosed, he’d put full power into a climb, not even pausing to close the bomb bays in the plane’s belly. He said he was continually amazed and grateful to learn how much wing or tail the B-17 could lose and still fly home.

One run he retold had targeted a ball-bearing factory adjacent to a German primary school. He said by observation their bombs had hit accurately, demolishing the factory. Even then he wondered if their bombs had blasted out the windows in the school. And were the children there? What had happened to the children?

And he told me that sometimes when he closed his eyes he’d see the moment a burning German fighter plane plummeted right through the next B-17 in formation to his, and how in that instant he’d seen the face of the German pilot and the face of his own friend. And harder, he said, than that was the next moment, when the plane had fallen out of sight, of knowing his friend was crashing with his crew to earth.

I don’t know what of the war Dad was able to write home to mother. I’ll ask her.

After VE-Day in 1945, Dad had flown his bomber back to the U.S. to be scrapped. He took the train home to California, to live in his widowed mother-in-law’s house and wait for a new assignment in the continuing war in the Pacific where Donald, my mother’s brother, was flying a B-24.

Dad had only be back home for a week or two In mid-June of 1945 when he answered the doorbell to a uniformed army officer wished to speak to Donald Campbell’s next of kin. Donald’s plane and crew were reported missing in action, just five and a half months after my grandfather’s death. It would take another eighteen more months of waiting (and hoping) before the Army would report finding the wreckage and remains of Donald and his crew.

More months passed, before the Army announced that the remains were being flown to St. Louis and buried in Jefferson Barracks, National Cemetery.

If grief is stasis, blocked, stuck, what Jonathan Moscone calls mourning is the deep feeling of loss that goes somewhere. Standing at my uncle’s gravesite a year or so ago, my first visit, I stared at the granite slab marker for that whole crew and tried to imagine my grandmother standing there almost two years after her son’s death and wondered where she found room to mourn.

Recently visiting Malawi with my wife’s AIDS work, one of Ellen’s Malawian colleague’s lost her husband, a diabetic about my grandfather George’s age. We attended the village funeral, the last eight or nine hours of the twenty-four hour funeral. When we arrived the wailing and singing had been going on from the previous day and all through the night. There were three hundred mourners. I’d been directed to sit with the clergy in the ritual place of greeting, half a dozen of us seated in chairs in the shade of a house where every newly arrived mourner would greet us one by one with a word and a handshake before proceeding to the mourning house across the stream where the body was laid out. Ellen was in that house with the widow, her colleague. When the woman’s sons arrived, home from university and from good work in South Africa, Ellen later described seeing what I heard from across the stream. When the sons appeared, the mourners began to wail with special intensity, putting a new sharp edge on their hours-long rhythm of silence, song. The high-pitched keening was sharp as a siren. Did it chill the heart, or simply touch it? The young men looked on their father’s body impassively for one moment, for two moments, and then the wailing broke their grief loose from paralysis and their mourning tears began to flow and their sobbing quickly followed. The clergy didn’t rejoin the crowd to begin the formal funeral liturgy until the sons’ tears were flowing freely.

I found some passages where St. Paul seems to acknowledge a distinction like Moscone makes between grieving and mourning:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. – 2 Corinthians 7.10

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

– 1 Thessalonians 4.13

I remember preachers I heard as a kid saying Christians didn’t grieve because our hope wouldn’t let us. But I’m hearing something quite different in the Thessalonians passage they always quoted. We DO grieve, but our way of grieving (or mourning) isn’t like the grief of those who have no hope. Ah, what is it to grieve without hope? And how does it feel to let loose the feelings and grieve and move on to mourning in hope and finally mourn through to comfort?

I’m hearing William Billings’ raucous, life-affirming setting of these verses by Isaac Watts:

How long, dear Savior, O how long

Shall this bright hour delay?

Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,

And bring the promised day.

Lo, what a glorious sight appears

To our believing eyes!

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears

From every weeping eye;

And pains and groans and griefs and fears

And death itself shall die. .

I suspect many of us carry fragments of grief we don’t know how to finish. Isaac Watts’ promise of salvation, of deliverance, of freedom offers, with St. Paul and Jesus, a blessed comfort for those who mourn. The radiance and hope Watts’ scene of Jesus’ hand drying our tears (and recognizing the grace of those tears) even hints that we can hope for deliverance from the rest of it – “pains and groans . . .and fears” that, like grief, they will die with death itself.

In this living moment, before the wheels of time bring any promised day, I welcome this tender promise and hope that His hand will comfort, mysterious as that image may be, and give us freedom to engage the grief, shed the tears, feel the sorrow, and mourn, and that as we find the freedom to weep, we’ll each one let Him wipe the tears from our weeping eyes.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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