by Liv Larson Andrews–
Grief knows us before we know grief. Our bodies usually know it first. Deep in our bodies, we long for a community to share—and sing—our grief with us.
On Ash Wednesday in 2018, my younger son was ill. For about 24 hours, he hadn’t been able to keep much down. A nasty stomach flu was going around our region that winter, and we figured he had finally succumbed to it. He stayed home with my husband from worship, and we hoped he would be on the mend the next day. But by 2 p.m. Thursday, he was still throwing up. Dehydration was becoming an issue. My husband took him to urgent care. By dinnertime, he was in the emergency room. By 10 p.m., he was in the operating room having emergency abdominal surgery for a fluke bowel obstruction. He spent two weeks recovering in the hospital.
It was quite the welcome to Lent. Not a full day had elapsed between the moments when I’d rubbed ashes on my parishoners’ foreheads, speaking that graphic-yet-grace-filled sentence, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and the moment in the pediatric emergency room when I stood beside my son, hearing him ask for water, his voice sounding dusty, and the child life specialist saying that he would have to wait a little longer for a post-surgery drink of water. I understood the medical necessity, but seeing my child want for water and not receive it made my insides twist with rage and sadness. The emergency surgery, followed by the many days of recovery, brought those difficult Lenten truths about human
frailty uncomfortably close.
My spouse is blessed with the capacity to feel and express emotion in the moment—to just let it out. He could cry; he could rage (in the private waiting room). I, on the other hand, have a knack for shoving my emotions down and toughening up. I justify it: “Someone has to drive; someone has to keep a game face.” In reality no one expects a mother to have zero emotions as a nurse kindly searches with a needle for a vein in her child’s dehydrated limbs…for the third and fourth times. Wince. Gulp. Breathe.
THE PERFECT WORDS
Weeks after the successful surgery, recovery was going well, and my son had returned home. I came upon an old favorite song, and all my feelings woke up. Grief is weird like that. The Cranberries’ 1994 album, No Need to Argue, includes the popular song “Zombie.” The song is about the terrible cycles of violence in Ireland and Northern Ireland before and during the era called the Troubles. Lead singer Dolores O’Riordian (1971-2018) blasts: “It’s the same old thing since 1916: in your head, in your head, they’re still fighting…” 1916 is the year Ireland was partitioned into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The refrain includes her guttural pronunciation of “zo-ombie” as she grieves over the violence plaguing her home.
For some reason, the song “Zombie” took me where I had not yet gone, but where I needed to dwell. After so many days spent interpreting medical information, measuring my son’s progress, and making the transition back home, I’m sure I felt like some kind of zombie. I raged along with a voice I’d loved in my teenaged years, and it opened a little space inside me. I began to feel. I felt the fear of losing my son. I felt the pain of watching him suffer. The knot of emotion I had been keeping tightly wound inside me loosened up. (For the record, I apologize to any Spokane drivers who may have seen me mid-rage that day. It must have been quite a sight.)
Good poetry like that song wakes up the body. As hard as the lament psalms in Scripture can be to sing or pray, I wonder if they are like these songs we go to in rage and in grief. They twist our insides with their imagery of rage and sadness. They come from a raw place of pain and/or injustice. Often, they take us by surprise. Ever find yourself in the parking lot of a grocery store, or riding the train to work, and suddenly R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” is the next song on the radio or your playlist? Good poetry and good music can lead us to a place we didn’t want to go. Once there, we often need some tissues. Our tears and our bodies bear witness to hurt we didn’t even remember was deep inside us, needing that permission to let go.
This article is excerpted from the October 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.